Buns at the Ready, Girls
Picture this. I’m on a bus driving through the picturesque village of Burnsall, full of honey-coloured Yorkshire stone cottages, to meet up again with two of Cheshire’s most famous sons. Both from Frodsham, they are multi-award winners in their fields. Ring any bells? You’ve probably guessed they are Gary Barlow and Tim Firth.
We are all reunited in Burnsall Village Hall to hear about the next stage in the story of the world-famous ‘calendar girls’. Several years ago they posed for a WI nude calendar, initially to raise money for a settee at their local hospital, where one of their husbands was being treated for cancer. They ended up raising £5 million for blood cancer charity, Bloodwise!
Producer of Calendar Girls the Musical, David Pugh, was quick to reassure them: “Once again we‘ve given a firm commitment that a section of money from any profits will still go to Bloodwise, the UK’s specialist blood cancer charity, for further research. That’s the least we can do to honour your incredible story.”
You may already be familiar with their amazing global success story from either reading Tim Firth’s best-selling book, or seeing their life-affirming journey in the award-winning film; or as a play on stage; or even as a musical. Tim has already won an Olivier Award and UK Theatre Award for Best New Musical, as well as the British Comedy Awards Best Comedy Film for Calendar Girls. But there’s another chapter of their story, which even Tim didn’t think he would write.
“The great Stephen Sondheim once said: ‘Musical comedies aren’t written – they are rewritten’,” Tim grins. “We made a mistake in calling our first musical foray together simply The Girls; many people said they didn’t realise it was the calendar girls story set to music. To be given a chance to revisit the Calendar Girls in musical form is a unique opportunity for both Gary, who wrote the music and me, to think it through again. We are on the same wavelength, presumably because we grew up in the same village where I still live; and we are both mad about music. We love this story and wanted to do our best for these amazing women.”
Gary Barlow – who, with Take That, has written and co-written 14 number one singles, has sold over 50 million records worldwide and is a six-times Ivor Novello Award winner – agrees. "We’d written about 50 songs and honed them down for the show, but the more we watched it, often from the back of the stalls, the more we came to the same conclusion – that we‘d lost some great songs that we wanted to put back into the score. This time we hope we’ve got it right; and we also have a phenomenal new cast. Tim and I not only sat in on the auditions, but sometimes even played the songs for them – and we’ve been lucky to be able to put together such talented ladies.”
The new tour stars novelist and television presenter Fern Britton, who was great fun on the day, conducting the proceedings as if she really was the head of the Women’s Institute. She returns to the stage for the first time in 30 years, as bossy Marie, but does not have to disrobe – unlike the rest of the cast.
Among the experienced cast are actress Lorraine Bruce – whom you may recognise from Kay Mellor’s The Syndicate – and Anna-Jane Casey, no stranger to musicals like Billy Elliot and Stepping Out; Rebecca Storm, best-known as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers; and Wilmslow-based Denise Welch, who will be remembered from Coronation Street and Waterloo Road. Sara Crowe’s West End roles include Bedroom Farce, and Hay Fever; while popular Ruth Madoc is best loved for roles in Hi-De-Hi and Little Britain.
Ruth and I reminisced about working with genial Sir Harry Secombe, and then turned to the serious subject of cancer, which has brought us all to one of the most famous village halls in the country.
“Most of us have been touched in one way or another by that horrible disease,” Ruth admits.” That’s the reason I recently stripped off naked on television for the female version of The Full Monty. At first, I must admit to having qualms about taking all my clothes off on television, but when I knew the money was all going to research to combat that disease, I felt better – although I was still very nervous.”
Echoing the sentiments of the rest of the cast, Ruth sums up: “It’s the same with the story of these wonderful women who sat in this very church hall fighting against small-mindedness to pose for the calendar. By becoming famous around the world, they have raised millions for research. I have such respect for them. I feel so proud to appear in this show and, along with the rest of the cast, I’ll be taking my clothes off with much pride. We just feel honoured to be part of their story.”
As we said goodbye, there was just enough time for some last-minute pictures with Tim, Gary and the cast, on the village green. As if Gary hasn’t enough on his plate, with a new album out in November and a new Take That tour lined up for next year, one young reporter cheekily asked him, if he was ever to appear in a nude calendar, which month would he be? Rather taken aback, Gary laughed and jokingly replied: “Well it wouldn’t be one of the winter months!”
Now there is the restyled Calendar Girls The Musical to look forward to at The Lowry and we’ll be keeping an eye on the back stalls just in case Tim and Gary are checking out our reactions.