Christa Ackroyd: How the Calendar Girls became the biggest champions of middle aged women in history

Calendar Girls
Calendar Girls
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Twenty years ago in the Calendar newsroom it was what is known in the business as a slow news day.

I picked up the phone to hear a voice ask if we would be interested in doing a story about a fund raising effort in the Yorkshire Dales? It didn’t sound promising. The caller introduced himself as photographer, Terry Logan. He had taken some photographs for a calendar and wondered if we would like to use them. Images of fluffy lambs and rolling hills flashed through my mind. But no, he explained, they were pictures of a group of women from the local Women’s Institute. Oh and they were naked. I nearly fell of my chair. The rest as they say is history. Almost £5 million raised, a film, a stage show and a musical about a group of women who became famous around the world for daring to take their clothes off whatever their age, whatever their size. It is worth us casting our minds back two decades to remember how shocking it all was as we gathered around in the newsroom to view the images, the likes of which we had never seen. Yes they were tasteful, beautiful even. The photographs were sepia. The only colour the bright yellow sunflowers. But could we show them at tea time someone asked? Of course we could, the women of the newsroom, argued. These women were simply magnificent. They were empowering, if not completely bonkers. Their modesty was protected, albeit with a variety of props from cherry topped buns to brightly coloured knitting, potted plants to cups of tea, but there was no getting away from it, they were completely starkers.

Can you believe in this day and age we even had that conversation? It seems so naive now, though you have to remember this was the calendar that launched a thousand calendars. The first. And these women needed to be seen in all their glory. But the women were panicking. And it had nothing to do with taking their clothes off. The fundraising aim was modest, simply to purchase a comfortable sofa in the waiting room at a local hospital. The idea was originally to cheer up John Baker but he had died the year before from leukaemia. It had given him a laugh, though he teased the women they would never dare. So now they were daring to carry out their promise to him. His wife Angela was Miss February, though Miss October Tricia Stewart, whose idea it was, was worried that to get a cheap printing deal she had agreed to a print run of a couple of thousand. Now they had to sell them all if they were to make anything at all. As we now know the calendar sold out and was reprinted many times. And at their press conference 20 years ago this week the women were overwhelmed as media from around their world packed into a local hotel to share their story.

Of course you know this. You probably bought the calendar and have almost certainly seen the film, in which I was honoured to be asked by the women to take part. But it is worth placing on record my view of their legacy. This small group of women overnight became the greatest champions of middle aged women in history. Their attitude to life and to their lumps and bumps was and remains liberating and triumphant. But more importantly it is a story of friendship in the face of adversity. And a lesson in daring to be exactly who you are irrespective of what people may think.

The Rylstone women, or the six key members who remain firm friends today, are as powerful a group as they were then. They are all so different. The oldest Beryl is perhaps the most daring. The ring leader, Tricia along with Linda, the most outrageous. Chris is perhaps the quietest and Ros, the shyest. And then there is Angela whose husband they were trying to make smile, who was never alone in her darkest days. Because they were and are women at their best. In these days of body shaming and the unreal reality of social media, of television programmes based on women whose sole aim is sell us an airbrushed image of life, the women from the WI in the Yorkshire Dales shine as brightly today as they did then. They remain a fine example of how each of us should surround ourselves with women who have our best interests at heart, of friendships that are steadfast in the bad times as well as the good.

And so this week I say to the Rylstone women, thank you for the laughs, thank you for the tears. And thank you for continuing to reaffirm that together we are strong enough to conquer anything, with or without our clothes on.