Ten years after they became a worldwide phenomenon – raising over £2 million for Leukaemia Research and inspiring a Hollywood film – the Calendar Girls of Rylstone WI were back for last night for one last time, and a delightful, heartwarming visit with them it was too.
The film followed six of the original Calendar Girls as they celebrated the 10th anniversary by stripping off for another new nude calendar, but it’s not all been harmonious; the ‘Hollywood effect’ had caused rifts and rows between the original 11 women, which is sad because it all began with a strong and common goal, which was to raise money for Leukaemia Research after Angela Baker’s husband John died of the disease…
But Angela and her WI friends could’ve had no hint of the phenomenon that their story was going to turn into when they first posed naked behind buns and flower arrangements for their calendar.
In the film, Angela spoke very movingly of her grief over losing her husband and how that loss inspired her and her friends to raise money for the charity.
“It wasn’t 11 women having a good time, taking their clothes off, we did it in memory of John and to raise money for Leukaemia Research – and that’s what we have not got to forget.”
But forgotten to some extent that message was in many ways both before the film was made and then when it became a hit, however, given that between the original calendar and the movie – and now the stage play – revenue from those ventures has netted the charity over £2 million, while the original point of it all may have gone somewhat astray, these lovely ladies have still achieved what they wanted to, and more.
The thing that made this film truly watchable was the personal recollections of some of the women involved, most notably how many of them were half cut when they agreed to do the calendar in the first place and how many then tried, but didn’t succeed, in backing out.
One very touching recollection was from Angela about the sunflower that became the “official emblem of the Calendar Girls”. Angela had asked everyone she knew to grow a sunflower for her husband John during his illness and since so many of his get well cards had featured the flower, it came to represent hope to her in effect. “John died before he could see them bloom” Angela said in her gentle Yorkshire tones, but it was for this reason that the sunflower was used to represent the larger message of the calendar.
These delightful ladies – truly English roses in the main – were charmingly self deprecating and modest throughout and one on discussing the new anniversary calendar, one lady girl mused, “We might need bigger props this time…”
There was a good deal of levity in the programme but it was rather sad to hear that the original 11 women became divided into 6 and 5 when two offers to make the story into a film came in; one was from Victoria Wood and the other from the film makers who did eventually make the famous film, but disagreements and an eventual vote split opinion and caused a rift which meant that 5 of the ladies didn’t feel able to remain WI members.
On a more amusing note, it was charming to hear how these modest, intelligent and unassuming ladies had first met Julie Walters and another of the film’s stars, Helen Mirren. She’d come round to have lunch with the ladies while their curious husbands paced outside, hoping for a glimpse of Helen. In the end, the husbands were allowed in as a giggling Angela explained, “First, one husband walked past the window with a dog, then another. Eventually, we let them in. It was just Helen Mirren and all the husbands.”
We heard too how their local postman had to hire a van just to accommodate their fan mail which they still get and in view of the fact they’ve done another calendar, they’re probably going to get a lot more, and rightly so!
Towards the end I shed a tear as Angela, at the launch of their 10 year anniversary calendar, became teary as she said she believed John would be looking down and smiling about what they’d achieved, and I’m sure he was.
If you’ve seen the film or the play, you really should watch this touching documentary about how it all began, so if you missed it, you can watch it on BBC’s iPlayer.