Some press releases really can leave their mark on history.
I will never forget the day my eyes were dazzled by the dispatch from the Women’s Institute in the hamlet of Rylstone in the Yorkshire Dales.
It was Sunday, April 11, 1999. I was the duty reporter covering the Dales for The Yorkshire Post and I was on the hunt for a memorable picture story for the following day’s paper. Normally, I would have been happy with scenes of lambing, basket weaving or even, perhaps, Morris dancing. The prospect of getting my hands on pictures of semi-naked members of the WI made me feel truly spoiled.
At the very least, I had been handed a wonderful human interest story. The ladies of Rylstone WI had come up with a bold and amusing way of raising a few pounds for charity. They had – almost – completely undressed for a charity calendar for 2000 which had been brought to fruition by the photographic skills of the husband of one of them, Terry Logan. They hoped the calendar’s launch, which was due to take place the following day, might get a mention in the local paper and The Yorkshire Post.
It was clearly worth more than a few paragraphs next to the cattle market reports. But there was one big question; would the images live up to expectations? I will never forget the moment I saw the Calendar Girls’ photos for the first time, with their beguiling mix of taste, humour and audacity. I knew this story would resonate beyond the parish of Rylstone.
What struck me at the time was the secrecy surrounding the whole operation. Their husbands had not been allowed to see the pictures before they were made public. It gave the whole enterprise an added dash of boldness. It was a story that belonged on the front page of any paper.
With mounting excitement, I sat down at my desk and wrote: “The menfolk of the quiet hamlet of Rylstone will be choking over their Cornflakes this morning. Their wives have boldly bared all in a calendar which will set middle-aged pulses racing. A dozen ladies from Rylstone and District Women’s Institute near Skipton, decided to disrobe to raise cash for charity.
“Wearing nothing but strategically placed hats and strings of pearls, the WI stalwarts posed for tasteful shots to illustrate the first year of the new Millennium. The models are pillars of society, including interior designers, practice managers, businesswomen and artists.”
Mr Logan was full of praise for their courage. “All of the women are in their mid 40s to early 60s and have got pretty damn good figures. They have been really brave – I don’t think younger women would have the bottle to do it. The whole operation has been carried out under tight security. Their husbands will certainly have a surprise when they finally have a look at them.”
There was a serious aspect to the whole enterprise. The ladies decided to strip off in memory of their friend John Baker. Sadly, Mr Baker, the former assistant national park officer of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, had died from leukaemia, aged 54, the previous year.
While Mr Baker battled the disease, the ladies often joked that they would pose for the camera in the style of early Pirelli calendars to cheer him up.
WI member and model Tricia Stewart, said: “Sadly, John died before the calendar could be produced but we decided to carry out our promise in memory of him and to raise funds for a charity close to his heart – the Leukaemia Research Fund. While it’s a far cry from jam and Jerusalem, the result is a tasteful yet revealing calendar which we are all very proud of.
“I am sure John would have approved, especially as a sunflower design is incorporated on every page
“John gave us all a packet of sunflower seeds to grow. He hoped to enjoy his favourite flowers when they were in full bloom but sadly did not live to see the day.”
Mr Baker’s widow Angela was among the ladies taking part, along with Mr Logan’s wife Lynda.
“The idea of getting the ladies to pose for a calendar kept John laughing to the end, “ said Mr Logan, who was a former professional artist.
“They decided I was the best person to take the pictures because of my creative background.”
The images appeared on pages one and three of the following day’s Yorkshire Post. Never in their wildest dreams can the Calendar Girls have anticipated what happened next. With blanket coverage on TV, radio and newspapers around the world. they became celebrities.
All 3,000 copies of the original calendar were snapped up, within a day of it being released, with collectors from as far afield as the US and Australia jamming hotlines to get their hands on pictures of WI stalwarts making jam in the nude.
A few days later, Mr Logan told me: “The response has been beyond everybody’s imagination. We have had people on the telephone from South Africa and tomorrow a crew from German TV is coming to question us. Who knows, we may become a tourist attraction in our own right.”
That’s exactly what happened. Two decades later, the Calendar Girls have raised millions for charity and retain their hold over the public imagination, thanks to the film and musical they inspired.
Why has their story endured? It is a noble, life-affirming tale. They were a group of women who just wanted to raise money to wipe out the disease that had killed their friend. They challenged convention in a very British way, with tact and self-deprecating humour. Perhaps above all else, they have given hope to everyone who dreams of defeating leukaemia.