Calendar Girls at 25: Remembering the day a simple press release from Rylstone WI in Yorkshire changed the world

Every journalist hopes they will have the good fortune to stumble across a story that leaves its mark on history. If you’re really lucky, pictures of semi-naked members of the Women’s Institute will land in your lap, providing an anecdote you can dine out on for decades. That’s what happened to me on April 11, 1999, when, as The Yorkshire Post reporter covering the Yorkshire Dales, I set out to find a picture story for the following day’s paper that captured rural life in all its glorious variety. Normally, I would have been happy with scenes of basket weaving or even Morris dancing. Sifting through the day’s press releases, I found a statement from Rylstone Women’s Institute which promised something a little different.

The ladies of Rylstone WI had come up with an unconventional way of raising cash 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. Perhaps the calendar’s launch, which was due to take place the following day, might be worth a few paragraphs in The Yorkshire Post?

But there was one big question; would the pictures live up to expectations? The images were stunning; a charming mix of wit and audacity. Struggling to contain my excitement, I sat down 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.”

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Photographer 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.”

Calendar GirlsCalendar Girls
Calendar Girls

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 non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma, 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.

My report continued: “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.”

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Mr Baker’s widow Angela was among the ladies taking part, along with Mr Logan’s wife Lynda.

The famous shotsThe famous shots
The famous shots

“The idea of getting the ladies to pose for a calendar kept John laughing to the end, “ said Mr Logan, a former professional artist.

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. 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: “Who knows, we may become a tourist attraction in our own right.”

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He was right. Their story inspired a hit film and musical which has kept the story alive for a new generation. The “Calendar Girls” toured the US and presented calendars to the Queen and the Queen Mother. In 2000, the calendar was published in America and sold 240,000 copies.

But what was it like to be at the heart of the “Calendar Girls” craze? As the 25th anniversary approached, I went back to Angela Baker to reflect on those heady days of April 1999. She said it was all originally the idea of her fellow Calendar girl, Tricia Stewart. Every year the national WI asked members for themed photographs for their calendar, such as sunsets, village greens and snow scenes.

“Tricia and I were like naughty girls at the back of the class,’’ she recalled. “She nudged me and said, ‘Why don’t we do a Pirelli style calendar of us all carrying out traditional WI crafts?

She added: “John was diagnosed in February 1998 and died in July 1998 after five months in hospital. John did know about the calendar and he said we would never do it - but you don’t say that to a group of fiesty Yorkshire ladies.”

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“Terry Logan took beautiful pictures which were works of art. I realised how big the calendar was going to become when we saw TV vans with satellite dishes parked in the car park of the Devonshire Arms in Cracoe, where we held the press conference to launch it. That evening we appeared on the national BBC News and people were ringing us up from abroad, requesting interviews. We honestly thought that if we just got our pictures in The Yorkshire Post and the local press we would have cracked it. After all, who really wanted to buy pictures of middle aged women with no clothes on?

“At times what happened next was a bit scary,’ she said. “I was on my own at home and getting calls from Hollywood asking if I had sold the film rights for the ‘Calendar Girls’ yet. I wanted the movie to be shot in the Yorkshire Dales because John loved the area so much. I also knew there were really good British actresses about our age who might be interested in portraying us.”

Calendar Girls, which starred Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, proved to be a global hit, and Angela has fond memories of attending the premiere in Leicester Square, which attracted 2,000 people.

She said: “Standing on each side of the red carpet were WI ladies who sang Jerusalem. There were tears in our eyes as we walked inside.”

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Helen Rowntree, CEO from Blood Cancer UK, said: “Blood cancer is the UK’s fifth most common type of cancer, and includes those living with leukaemia, lymphoma, and myeloma. Out of the tragedy of John’s death, Angela’s husband, who had non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma, has come something very special.

“Their ingenious idea of a nude calendar not only raised eyebrows at the time but has, over the years, also raised nearly £6m for Blood Cancer UK. It has brought attention to the challenges faced by those with blood cancer and helped fund significant advances in blood cancer treatments. But we know this isn’t the end of the story. With the Calendar Girls’ unwavering support, it will bring us closer to a day where no lives are lost to blood cancer.”

At its heart, the Calendar Girls is a life-affirming story about a group of women who were determined to destroy the disease that killed their friend.

“What really drove everything for me and my family was raising as much money for charity as possible,’’ said Angela. “John would have been incredibly proud.”

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