Storming the U.K. on the backs of amateur dramatic societies, hit West-End show Calendar Girls has changed the way we support the causes closest to us for good. Olivia Newall takes a look at the heart-warming story behind the show, and how eleven ladies sparked a trend for nude calendars and feisty fundraising.
In August 1998, John Baker lost his battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; an aggressive type of blood cancer at the age of 54. John was Assistant National Park Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, and was an adored husband, father, grandfather and friend. His love for the outdoors is represented by the sunflower, as this was one of his favorite flowers, and is shown wherever the Calendar Girls are as a symbol of hope and friendship. During his illness, his wife Angela and their friends came together with the hope of raising money to purchase a sofa for the visitors lounge in the hospital where John was treated. How they decided to raise money was to be a global phenomenon, and nothing could have prepared them for what was about to come.
Eleven ladies of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute decided to create an ‘Alternative’ calendar for the year 2000, featuring them ‘not naked, but nude’ carefully positioned behind kitchen paraphernalia, garden vegetables and other objects commonly associated with the Women’s Institute. The calendar was light-hearted and humorous and aimed to provide hope and support for the many people who have to fight cancer in their lives, or watch their loved ones do so, and these qualities participated greatly to the calendar’s success.
The first calendar was released on April 12th, 1999 and became an instant hit across the U.K, selling out in its first week, with another 10,000 being sold in the following three weeks. Nine months later and the calendar had sold 88,000 copies and was adapted for an American version.
To date they have raised over £2million for Leukemia Research, the UK's leading blood cancer charity, and have inspired a nation of nude calendars including our very own Athletic Union naked calendar!
Years later film writer Tim Firth approached the girls with the hope of turning the story into a film, and in 2003, the story was adapted for the big screen with an all-star cast featuring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. The film was a box office hit and again the calendar’s popularity was heightened, and like true fundraisers, the story was taken forward and adapted into a stage play. Following a popular run in London’s West End and two sell out tours, 2012 saw the release of the stage show to amateur dramatic societies, and so far, 520 applications were received for the rights to produce the show.
The show obviously, as many stage shows do, differs from real events in some ways, but the script is so cleverly written, you’d be challenged to not sit through the two acts without reaching for your tissues, but don’t be put off –those tears will hopefully be mostly of laughter.
The show begins by setting the scene in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. The tragic death of John follows, and then the fundraising begins! The show follows the story of six women Chris, Annie, Cora, Jessie, Celia and Ruth through the ups and downs in creating the calendar, who are loosely based on the original ladies themselves.
Firstly it’s getting the approval of the Women’s Institute and Marie, their local Institute’s chair who is against the idea. However after Chris and Annie present the idea at general conference to Madam Chairman, who decides to leave the decision to Marie, the calendar gets underway. Tensions are high as an amateur male photographer is hired who looked after John in his final days, however after a few glasses of wine and plenty of laughs, the nerves are overcome and the calendar is made! The first batch is taken to the Great Yorkshire Show and to their utter delight the calendar is an instant sell out. Calendar Girls fever hits the nation and the fictional Yorkshire village of Knapeley is overrun with photographers and reporters. It’s not long before the girls are asked to endorse a washing powder and feature in their advert. Initially thinking this is another part of the fundraising efforts; it soon becomes apparent that Chris, the main brainchild of the calendar, has become a little carried away and the advert is abandoned and the girls return to their roots in the Yorkshire Dales as they are reminded as to who inspired the calendar.
As I write this article I am reminded of my relationship with Angela, who happens to be my closest and longest friend’s grandmother. The story therefore is very close to my heart and I have been to see the show in the West End, in its originating hometown of Grassington, and most recently, in Loughborough Town Hall. Seeing the story interpreted by people completely unrelated to the original girls and how they perceive their extraordinary journey is strange for me, however I notice one thing that is present in every show and interpretation- the show touches something inside everybody. The girls (and not just the original girls) the actresses who get up on stage and bare all to keep the story and fundraising efforts alive for an extraordinary cause is inspirational.
I finish this article with a quote from the script which I feel sums up the whole spirit of the Calendar Girls. Mixing tragedy with humour, spirit and friendship, sometimes when we are faced with tragedy is what we need to rely on to get through:
“If we can get one step closer to beating the shitty, sly, conniving bloody disease that cancer is then I tell you, I’d run around Skipton High Street naked smeared in plum jam with a knitted tea cosy on my head singing Jerusalem.”
The story has touched hearts all over the country and the show should seriously not be missed.