Calendar girls: Could it be magic?

On a stage in a North Yorkshire village hall theatre producer David Pugh is making a speech at the end of the premiere performance of a new musical – and he’s been up there a while.

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth. Picture: Matt Crockett
Gary Barlow and Tim Firth. Picture: Matt Crockett

He’s starting to run out of people to thank. It’s like an Oscar speech that isn’t being wrapped up.

Pugh then makes an admission. He is aware his thank you speech is ridiculously long, but he had to ‘fill’ in order to give time for members of the Press to gather at the back of this tiny village hall and for the VIP guests of the first ever performance of The Girls to sneak in.

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Finally, Pugh says the VIPs have arrived so he can bring his speech to a close and asks the villagers to remain in their seats when he introduces to the stage...Gary Barlow and Tim Firth. The audience is compliant, the invited lucky few stay in their seats to allow the cameramen and photographers to do their jobs as Barlow and Firth join Pugh on stage.

The cast of Calendar Girls filming a scene.

Firth is the man who wrote the Calendar Girls movie, and several award winning plays including Neville’s Island and The Safari Party, and Barlow is, well, Gary Barlow. And they are both in Burnsall Village Hall.

Burnsall, in case you don’t know, go to Bolton Abbey and you just keep going. And going. And you keep going through the tree-lined single track road on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales until you come to signs of civilisation – that’s Burnsall.

When I write village hall, I really do mean ‘village’.

What is Barlow doing there?

Lynda Bellingham and the cast of Calendar Girls

“I see why you ask that, I see what you’re trying to say,” says Barlow (I may have been a bit cheeky and suggested his career had been building to play a village hall).

“But it’s been beautiful for us this weekend. It’s so gorgeous, I’ve had a beautiful weekend here. When we started with this we said if we can’t play this piece on a stage in a village hall with some people and a piano, then we shouldn’t do it. It shouldn’t need the big production and big stage to make it work.”

They have done it – ‘it’ being turning Firth’s film Calendar Girls into a musical called The Girls, which will premiere at Leeds Grand Theatre in November.

Firth’s movie was of course inspired by the true life story of the women of the Rylstone WI who bared all when one of their number, Angela, lost her husband John to cancer. They aimed to raise funds for leukaemia research, hoping for a few thousand. They’re just short of £4m.

Firth was the one who suggested that the announcement of the musical should be made in Burnsall.

He says: “This whole thing has been a series of beautiful coincidences. Gary and I grew up in a town just a few hundred yards of each other, I used to come on holiday here, my mum and dad came to Burnsall on their honeymoon and I’ve been coming back here for holidays for 40 years now. The fact that there’s been a magical series of coincidences really feels like it’s in the spirit of the story of the calendar.”

They’ve had the seal of approval from Burnsall, now they just need to find a way to make this musical work on stages like the Leeds Grand.

“Actually, I reckon the problem is in reverse,” says Barlow.

“This is a musical about a little place where mums and dads, brothers sisters and friends all live. We actually have to try make the big theatres as magical as this village hall.”

The magic, of course, comes from the Calendar Girls themselves.

Back to the village hall.

The audience at the first performance of The Girls has been welcoming and compliant – everyone stayed in their seats, as requested by David Pugh, when superstar Barlow took to the stage. Then Pugh introduced the Calendar Girls. There was no stopping the audience this time. Everyone, to a man and woman, was on their feet to welcome them to the stage.

It was 1999 when the WI members got their kit off and turned the spotlight on to this tiny North Yorkshire village and turned themselves into local heroes.

After the applause has died down and the audience has been led out of the village hall, the Calendar Girls gather.

What do they think about Gary – Take That, X Factor – Barlow writing the music of their story?

“Aye, it’s some pop star they’ve got doing the music I know him vaguely, have you heard of him?” says Trish.

“I think he’s going to be successful, we have to watch out for him,” says Linda.

“Don’t ask me I’ve never heard of him,” says Beryl.

Fame clearly hasn’t changed them. Sure they’re been immortalised in film, their real life stories being represented on screen by Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, but they really are a group of women from a North Yorkshire village who are friends who happened to do something extraordinary. They remain like any group of women their age in a North Yorkshire village – except that they raised almost £4m for charity.

“With this musical, let’s hope we’ll make another million,” says Angela, whose husband John inspired all of this.

“We did the first calendar and thought that if we sold 1,000 calendars and made £5,000 that would be fantastic.

“Now we’ve got to almost £4m, our story is still going and now they’re singing about us.”

Were they disappointed not to be asked to appear in Gary Barlow’s new musical?

Trisha: “Well, we have all been to stage school you know.”

Linda: “We wanted to give someone else a chance.” Beryl: “And you haven’t heard me sing.”

Do they approve of the show?

Christine: “It really is good.”

Angela: “You never think ‘this is a bit long’. It’s a real rollercoaster.”

Linda: “One minute you’re laughing and the next you’re crying.” Angela: “A bit like our story.”

Trisha: “There’s some really moving songs and some that get you tapping along.”

At which point the Calendar Girls all start clicking their fingers and humming.

Angela: “The calendar really does have a life of its own. Every time we think that’s it, the story’s finished, it comes up with something else.” Beryl: “We’ll be doing this when we’re 90.”

They are also exceptional saleswomen. Yes, they’re funny and yes they’re clearly enjoying the fact that the media are queueing up to speak to them just as eagerly as they are Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, but they never forget the message.

“If all the people in Yorkshire go and see the show in Leeds, I think they’ll come out feeling inspired,” says Linda.

“And singing,” says Trisha. “And full of woman power,” says Christine.

“I think you mean Calendar Girl power,” says Beryl.

The other key part of this extraordinary story is the man who inspired it, John Baker.

He was the husband of Angela whose death sparked this whole tale. His children Matthew Baker and Rachel White have never spoken about their father – until the first showing of The Girls.

“It was such a horrible time for us as a family, but something so brilliant has come out of something so difficult.

“What a tribute to dad this is. It’s been a real tribute to dad, we’re just so proud,” says Rachel.

Matthew says: “I met Gary yesterday and said it’s great to meet you but I’m trying to reconcile that you’ve been writing songs about my mum and mother-in-law for the past few months and he said ‘a few months – try three years’. It’s strange to think that, but it’s all to raise money and dad would be so pleased.”

The Calendar Girls are so used to having the final word, it seems fair to give someone else the chance for a change.

Tim Firth: “We hope that people see this show and laugh so much they don’t notice that they’ve cried.”

Gary Barlow: “Yeah, yeah I like that. I’m with him.”

The Girls, world premiere Leeds Grand Theatre, Nov 14 - Dec 12, 2015. Tickets 0844 848 2700.