Staging Calendar Girls - by producer who persuaded Daniel Radcliffe to bare all

In this line of work you always get asked about the most famous people you’ve interviewed.

David Pugh
David Pugh

It’s often a moment for racking your brains, since as soon as you write one interview and move on to the next, you generally forget about the last.

I won’t forget interviewing David Pugh for some time. He might not be the most famous person I’ve ever met, but he’s easily one of the most entertaining, outrageous and libellous I’ve ever interviewed.

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He arrives in a whirlwind at Leeds Grand Theatre and immediately starts swearing at me because I’ve managed to convince him to have his photograph taken.

Tim Firth, Gary Barlow and the original Calendar Girls, photographed by Matt Crockett

“I hate having my picture taken. There’s one of me in the National Portrait Gallery, we tried to get permission for you to use it yesterday, but they were having none of it,” says Pugh, cackling, sprinkling profanities liberally. “Can we nip out for a cigarette before we start? Do I look alright?”

Pugh is the impresario who knows everyone, has worked with everyone and has a contact book that many would pay good money just to look through.

“You must come down to London and see our office. It’s in the top of the Wyndham’s Theatre. It’s the old theatre manager’s flat where John Gielgud stayed when he was doing seasons in London. It’s true, he was here from 1935 to 1938. He used to stand in front of the mantelpiece and toast crumpets in front of the fire and then…” then he relates one of the many outrageous and unprintable parts of the stories Pugh tells.

The end of the story is: “We’ve had a new settee since then.”

Who is David Pugh?

Well, he’s the man who makes things happen. In his long and colourful career as a theatre producer he has brought to the stage the plays Art, God of Carnage, The Play What I Wrote and persuaded Daniel ‘Harry Potter ‘ Radcliffe to make his theatrical debut controversially and nakedly, in Equus.

For now, though, the man with the Midas touch is here to talk about his latest venture – The Girls. The Girls is a musical that tells the story of the women of the Rylstone Women’s Institute who bared all and raised millions for charity. Written by Tim Firth, the man who wrote the screenplay for the film, with music by Gary Barlow, The Girls has been a long time in the making. It will have its world premiere on November 14 this year at Leeds Grand Theatre.

“I think it was about 14 years ago that I first wrote to the wonderful Yorkshire ladies,” says Pugh. “I saw their story in the Daily Telegraph and I wrote to them – I think I sent it to ‘The Village Hall, Rylstone’ – and said that I’d like to turn their story into a musical.

“About three weeks later I got what I can only describe as a rather snooty letter, thanking me for the enquiry, but that they were only considering film offers at the time. I do remind the ladies of that letter every so often.

“So they said no and that was that.”

We all know that wasn’t actually that – we’re here to talk about the musical and the fact that Pugh is in Yorkshire to try and cast some of the younger characters of the play – but he clearly enjoys telling a good story in real life as much as he does on the stage.

We are speaking in the beautiful Emerald Grand Hall high above the Leeds Grand Theatre. Coincidentally, days before we meet, The Producers was on stage downstairs. The Mel Brooks musical takes you into the office of theatre producer Max Bialystock. The Brooks character is perhaps best described as a bit of a ‘shyster’.

“There’s a lot of truth in that show in the way that we work. It’s not exactly the same of course, but we do have angles. Look, we have 160-plus investors and we know them all personally. These days ‘producer’ is one of the most overused words in theatre, everyone’s a producer, but the truth is you can’t be a producer unless you can raise the money to make the show.”

Raising the money is what Pugh is best at, but there’s more to his work than that.

“You’re a jack of all trades, it’s like building a huge jigsaw, you put all the parts together and make the show happen. The best feeling ever is standing at the back of an auditorium and watching the audience laughing or being moved and knowing that you’ve made that happen.”

So how has he made The Girls happen?

“It was about seven years ago that Tim Firth came to see me. Disney still owned the rights to the story and he knew that I still wanted to turn it into a musical.

“Disney were having none of it, but said we could turn it into a play for the stage. There were some restrictions from Disney, but I decided to do it because I thought if I could make it work, we could eventually turn it into the musical I knew it could be.”

So Calendar Girls became a very successful play. When it opened in the West End, Pugh’s pulled together a brilliant cast – and dealt with an issue with one of the cast members in his inimitable way.

“We had this wonderful moment where the women recreated the nude poses from the calendar. One of the actresses, who shall remain nameless – Patricia Hodge – wasn’t happy about one aspect. She said she was alright with the nudity as long as no-one could see her ankles. I don’t know what the problem was, she has very nice ankles and she’s a very attractive woman! We stuck her behind a hatch.”

The play was incredibly popular, selling out venues around the country. It was particularly popular with a woman called Marjorie, a friend of the writer, Tim Firth.

“Tim called me and said she’d seen it about three times, this is Marjorie Barlow, Gary’s mum. So we realised we had an in with Gary.”

Pugh began the negotiations and Gary Barlow of Take That signed on to work with his old friend Tim Firth on the production.

“There’s quite a lot of Yorkshire money going into the production. I’m surprised because I didn’t think it was very easy to get money out of Yorkshire people,” says Pugh, tongue firmly in cheek.

“The reason new British musicals are so few and far between is because they are so expensive. When I did Equus with Daniel, it capitalised at £800,000. This musical is costing £3.4m. So you can see why this is actually pretty daunting.”

Pugh won’t be drawn on his future plans for the musical. It opens in Leeds, then will play in Manchester after Christmas, but he claims he doesn’t know if it will go into the West End – he hopes it will, but he’s not certain.

I can help with that – I’d stake my house on it. Gary Barlow? The Calendar Girls’ story? David Pugh? This thing has recipe for massive theatrical success written all over it.

Pugh has the magic touch. As evidenced when he was responsible for giving the world’s biggest child star his theatre debut.

“I was there when Daniel was born. He spent the first 18 months of his life in a Moses basket under my desk,” says Pugh.

Way back, Pugh had an assistant called Marcia Gresham, now most famous as Radcliffe’s mum. It’s the sort of plot twist that JK Rowling herself might have written.

“When she was pregnant with Daniel she said she was going to work right up until she had him and I said good job because I can’t afford a temp.

“When she went into labour, she went into Charing Cross Hospital and I was there for the birth of this little boy. Then I fired her. I’m joking. Of course Daniel went off and became Harry Potter.”

Then 18 years later Pugh had a brainwave of casting Radcliffe in a play in which he would appear on stage naked as the day he was born.

“I sent his dad the play. I’d seen Equus when I was 16 and it really affected me, really moved me.

“Daniel read it and his dad called to say he wanted to do it – but it was going to be tricky because of his movie contract – a naked Harry Potter was going to be a difficult thing to get away with.”

Richard Griffiths had previously appeared in Pugh’s production of Art and was, of course, an important part of the Harry Potter film franchise.

Pugh knew that if he could get Griffiths on board to play the psychologist in Equus, who attempts to help Alan Strang, the character Radcliffe would play, it would make negotiations easier.

“Then we did one of those theatrical coups. Warner agreed to let us do this, but they had to oversee all the press and publicity.

“But I set up a photoshoot and I must have forgotten I’d agreed to that.

“Yes, that’s right, I forgot to ask permission. That’s what happened. We accidentally got a white stallion into a warehouse in West London.

“We took the photos with Daniel. The photos went out and within a day you couldn’t get a ticket.”

I’m not sure if he’s got anything similar up his sleeve for The Girls, but this maestro will be doing something and come November his latest show will be the hottest ticket in town.