The WI ladies of the Yorkshire Dales, who in 1999 disrobed for a fund-raising calendar that made them instant celebrities, have spawned a film, a stage play and a musical. Today, two decades after the initial unveiling, and close to the same location, they prepared to take the show on the road.
The teasing spectacle of ladies of a certain age concealing themselves behind nothing more than a pair of Belgian buns had lost none of its appeal as spectators gathered at the village hall in Burnsall for the latest iteration of the area’s most famous franchise since James Herriot.
The musical version of Calendar Girls, by the pop star and TV talent show judge Gary Barlow and his writing partner Tim Firth, opened in Leeds in the autumn of 2015, to rave reviews, and transferred to the Lowry in Salford and then to the West End, where it ran for six months.
Its national tour had been highly anticipated and there was barely a spare seat to be had on the vintage charabancs hired by the producers to bring representatives of the 17 other theatres that will host runs between this August and next April, to the Dales.
The Grand Theatre in Leeds will once again host the opening performance, with Sheffield’s Lyceum and the New Theatre, Hull, also on the list.
The village hall had been decorated with vases of the sunflowers that have symbolised the Calendar Girls’ fundraising efforts since Angela Baker’s husband, John, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
But the battered upright piano was less audience-ready, and it was only as members of the new cast – which includes Ruth Madoc, familiar as the pouting Gladys in the sitcom Hi-de-Hi, Denise Welch and the TV presenter Fern Britton – gathered to perform some of the score that it was noticed that not all the notes worked.
Mr Firth – a Lancastrian who suggested the secret of being a Yorkshireman was to eat Yorkshire pudding with raisins for dessert – felt a new arrangement coming on.
“We left out a few other notes, and created a much smaller piano part,” he said. “I thought it was great because I could hear the song more.”
Some of the original calendar girls were listening, and announced that they “couldn’t be happier” with the new cast.
Mr Barlow had been expecting them. They had, he said, been at every first night so far.
“When I first met them I didn’t know how involved with the show they would be,” he said. “But if it was my story that someone was celebrating, I guess I’d want to as well.
“Their enthusiasm and passion is lovely to be around. We’re in a little town in the middle of nowhere and yet you could ask anyone in the world who the Calendar Girls were, and they’d know.”