To launch Calendar Girls the Musical, the producers decided to take it back to where it all began nearly 20 years ago – Burnsall Village Hall nestled in the hills of the idyllic Yorkshire Dales.
Following the death of her husband John from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Angela Baker and the WI group she was part of decided to do a calendar of artfully posed nude portraits to raise money to help fight leukemia. ‘We knew it would cause a bit of a stir’ says Trish Stewart, also one of the original Calendar Girls, ‘we had no idea quite how much’.
In 1999, the hope was that the ‘Alternate WI Calendar' would raise £3,000. It has since, with many, many reprints, a film of the story starring Helen Mirren and Julie Waters, a stage play and then the musical written by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, raised over £5 million. And counting.
On a sunny day in April, five of the original Calendar Girls - Angela, Trish, Chris, Linda and Beryl - are back at Burnsall Village Hall with the UK press and guests from theatres UK wide as the front row guests of honour at the official launch of Calendar Girls the Musical. It’s the musical’s second outing following its premiere in Leeds in November 2015 as The Girls and a West End run last year. It’s now going out on a major UK tour, with household name Fern Britton leading an impressive cast of musical theatre veterans and stars of stage and screen.
Angela Baker starts things off by presenting Fern Britton with a Victoria sponge – very WI! – and Fern introduces Rebecca Storm who sings ‘Sunflower’, one of the show’s signature songs inspired by John Baker’s growing sunflowers to give to his friends before he died. Hearing a powerhouse, big-stage performance from an actress who’s played the lead in shows like Evita, Chess and Les Mis, in a small village hall is really quite something and the stunned audience along with the rest of the cast seem a bit unsure how to follow it. Anna-Jane Casey, Lancashire lass and fellow star of the West End, does though and sings the heart-breaking ‘Scarborough’, a song about wondering how on earth you’ll cope when you lose the one you love. Watching the original Calendar Girls getting misty eyed watching Anna-Jane sing is incredibly moving, so it’s a relief when Fern jollies up proceedings, bringing Denise Welch and Ruth Madoc up for a group performance of ‘Dare’, the rallying call about living life to the full again.
Of course it wouldn’t have been the launch of Calendar Girls the Musical without the star presence of Gary Barlow and after three songs in he walks with the playwright and lyricist Tim Firth, who wrote the Calendar Girls play and the musical with Gary. They’re both clearly thrilled to be back in Burnsall to give the ‘girls’, now women in their sixties and seventies, the first listen to the songs before the cast head out on tour.
They’ve certainly got a hit on their hands. And the loveliest part of the day? Apart from riding through the Dales in a vintage bus and hearing some of the songbook, was talking to the original calendar girls. Trish tells us she’s keen to get a 20th anniversary calendar underway (she hasn’t told the new cast yet!) and Angela introduces us to her new husband David, an old friend of hers and John’s who she re-met seven and a half years ago and love blossomed. They live 3 miles from Burnsall Village Hall and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. But they’d love to come to Edinburgh for opening night!