Ironic, tragic story leads to stage laughs

It is bitterly ironic that the story of the Calendar Girls, that has generated so much pleasure and enjoyment, should have opened with the kind of shattering news which we all dread.

John Baker, an apparently fit and healthy 53 year old “who’d never had a day’s illness in his life” according to his wife, Angela, was diagnosed with Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in February 1998.

John’s many friends in the close knit picture postcard village of Cracoe were shell shocked and they rallied round Angela and her family, determined to do something positive to help.

“John was the first of our group to contract a serious illness,” recalls Angela.

“We were all members of the WI and the subject of the WI calendar would come round every year. We were talking about it one night over supper, before John became ill, and I remember one very funny half hour when Tricia suggested that we do our own calendar in the style of the Pirelli one and we all discussed which months we would be. So we went back to the idea, thinking that it would raise funds for the Leukaemia Research Fund and entertain John at the same time. Not that he believed we would do anything about it. ‘You’re all talk’, he’d say. ‘It will never happen.’”

In the event, the rapid decline in John’s health – he died only five months after receiving the diagnosis – added to the sense of unreality which Angela felt.

Then one day, a few weeks after the funeral, she received a visitor.

“There was Tricia, armed with her clipboard. ‘Come on’, she said. ‘Are we going to do this calendar – or not? Even if we don’t sell any, at least we’ll have tried to do something.’”

The whole village wanted to do its bit and Tricia and Angela recruited volunteers from the WI – one lady who “only came to the meetings if there was a good speaker” found herself enlisted. They had originally planned a modest print run for the calendar of a mere 1000 but the printer pointed out that this was not a financially viable proposition and he persuaded them to increase the order to 3000. Donations from individuals and local businesses took care of the printing costs.

All that remained was for 11 good women and true to bare all in a noble cause. Accordingly, on a dark October night in 1998, ten shadowy figures arrived at the home of local artist Terry Logan and his wife Lynda, who was due to pose as Miss July. Although Terry was better known as a landscape painter, he’d worked in advertising for J Walter Thompson in Canada and therefore he knew precisely what was required.

“I’d set up everything in advance and had worked out what I wanted from each photograph. I tried to match each lady to her strengths,” Logan said.

“Angela played the piano, for example, and so I shot her at a piano. If the lady had good legs, I made sure that we saw her legs. At first the ladies stood around in their dressing gowns, drinking red wine and I knew that if I waited any longer, some of them would try to bottle out. So finally I said to them. ‘This is it, ladies, let’s get to work.’”

Angela sums up the extraordinary story of the Calendar Girls: “I think that we’ve all coped really well with what has happened. We’ve done the most amazing things but we’ve kept our feet on the ground and we’ve never forgotten why we did what we did. We didn’t do the calendar because we wanted to be famous but because we wanted to raise money in John’s memory. It has been the most marvellous experience.”

Producer John Frost has declared he has found an “incredible” cast for the forthcoming production of the stage version of the Calendar Girls story, which opens in Brisbane on April 8 before touring the nation.

The cast for the hit British show includes Lorraine Bayly, Rachel Berger, Rhonda Burchmore, Cornelia Frances, Jean Kittson, Anna Lee and Amanda Muggleton.

“We searched far and wide, talking to nearly every actress of ‘a certain age’, and have found an incredible group of woman to bring the most successful British comedy of the past decade to the Australian stage,” Frost said.

Calendar Girls is not only hilarious but also profoundly moving and uplifting. UK audiences couldn’t get enough of the show and we’re sure Australian audiences are going to fall in love with it too.”

Calendar Girls is based on the very successful film of the same name starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, which in turn was based on an uplifting and inspiring true story that is quirky, poignant and hilarious.

A group of ordinary middle aged women, members of a very ordinary Yorkshire Women’s Institute, do something quite extraordinary. They spark a global phenomenon by persuading one another to pose for a charity calendar with a difference! As interest snowballs, the Calendar Girls find themselves revealing more than they’d ever planned…

Calendar Girls has played to sold out audiences on the West End for well over a year, and is the fastest selling regional tour in British theatre history.

It has recently been nominated as “Best New Comedy” at the 2010 Oliver Awards. Audiences have been effusive in their praise for the play and its ensemble cast.

Calendar Girls opens in Brisbane on April 8 at QPAC then transfers to Sydney’s Theatre Royal from April 29 and to Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre from June 17.

– With Al Senter


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