By Beth Cartmell & Sam Wightman
Sat across the table from us are three of the world's most highly-publicised photographic models. Decked in sunflowers and bearing cupcakes, they introduce themselves one-by-one. "I'm Angela Baker and I am Miss February." Beside her is Christine Clancy who is Miss September, and with the sort of humour we expected from such figures, she is quick to remind us that she was "the one with the teapot and the buns." Finally, completing the trio is Tricia Stewart, who welcomed in autumn as Miss October.
It is all too easy to forget that these calendar girls were part of the racy nude photo-shoot many years ago that catapulted their story into the public eye. Following a highly-acclaimed film adaptation in 2003 and subsequent play in 2008, pop legend Gary Barlow is teaming up with Olivier Award-winner Tim Firth to bring their lives to the stage once more. The Girls is a new musical arriving at the Phoenix Theatre in January 2017, and we were eager to know how the real calendar girls might react to this next venture.
"We've had some really great people playing me," Angela laughs, "Playing everyone, really. It is surreal but we also feel privileged that people are telling our story." You wouldn't think that by great people, she means stars such as Helen Mirren and Julie Walters...
Set in a sleepy village in the Yorkshire Dales, The Girls tells of how this formidable group of women banded together to produce an alternative Women's Institute calendar starring themselves. It doesn't sound too controversial but, of course, the fantastic twist is that this unassuming collective bare all for it.
"We used to joke about it at WI meetings. Traditionally the WI calendar was photos of hills, sheep and snowy scenes," Tricia explains in her rich Yorkshire accent. "It was only when John became ill that we thought we should do it to make him chuckle."
Visions in Yellow: Christine Clancy, Tricia Stewart and Angela Baker during their visit.
John Baker, Angela's husband, was the inspiration for this naked calendar. In February 1998, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; a disease that even Tricia, a radiographer, had not heard of. Speaking with the girls today, it is clear that their story still means as much to them now as it ever has done. "Someone else answer because I'll cry again," Angela responds, when questioned about their philanthropic work. It was her husband, John, who originally spoke to his oncologist to find a home for the money being raised. That home was the Leukaemia Research Fund, now known as Bloodwise, and the relationship has continued ever since. The women are staunchly dedicated to the charity and Angela has even been on the board of trustees.
"We didn't think about changing the image of the WI or the perception of older women. After [John] died we thought we just had to do it. Even if it didn't sell, it was something for Angela to do through the winter," explains Tricia.
It certainly lasted the winter. By their own admission they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. Orders piled in and problems started to arise. The calendars were so big that they had to have specially-ordered envelopes. The sheer volume meant the girls went into mass-production armed with Tricia's car, a parcel tape machine and a helpful friend in the Post Office, who stayed up all night licking stamps for them. Not only did the calendars ruin the car's suspension, but Angela had to have an injection from lifting so many. She coins it "calendar elbow" and the girls all chuckle as they cast their minds back to sitting around their kitchen tables and stuffing envelopes all those years ago.
It quickly becomes evident that these three women have a very special bond. They talk over one another, reminisce together and chime in with their own lengthy anecdotes. Being in a room with them is infectious; you can't help but be swept up in the wave of positivity. Tricia is adamant that the girls were a team, a team that did what she said, but above all else, a team. "Only because we were scared of her with a clipboard!" Angela jokes, punctuated again by gales of laughter. These are ordinary women, happily sharing tips on the perfect Yorkshire pudding (hot fat and sunflower oil apparently), who did an extraordinary thing. The numbers speak for themselves. The current total raised stands at close to £4 million. It is a staggering figure and one of which the women are rightly proud.
Gifts we received from the original Calendar Girls, including cupcakes and real sunflower seeds.
This is a tale that taps into the hearts of audiences worldwide. Following the success of their calendar, they were whisked off to the United States, which according to Tricia was dubbed by the Sunday Times as "a tour that Madonna would have died for". It included an appearance on 20/20 which they managed to tune into from a sports bar of all places. It is no surprise that we see another outing of their story in 2017. Tim Firth, who penned the original stage version, has been working closely with Gary Barlow to create new musical, The Girls, which is also, to Angela, Christine and Tricia, the most realistic telling so far. The previous production took over £1.7 million in advances ticket sales, so they are fully expecting great things again. "Sixty-five shows and sixty-five standing ovations," they tell us with excitement. It is another huge statistic that is testament to their story's universal appeal.
There isn't a bad word said about Mr Barlow either, whom the women talk about as though he is their son. "We'd like to be a bit more, but that's how he thinks of us," they giggle cheekily. Christine reminds us how assuming and talented Gary is. "You'll come out humming a song whether you want to or not." The original girls have also been involved in every aspect of the production to ensure the honesty and integrity of the true events is not lost. "He couldn't have written the songs that he's written for the musical if he didn't feel it in his heart and that's really important to us. He just loves our story," Angela says with a sigh. We wonder how anyone could not.
Bloodwise will receive a percentage of every ticket sold for The Girls, meaning this musical is continuing a legacy of charity work that the group founded eighteen years ago. The memory of John lives on in their story, and Angela marvels at the pride and surprise he would feel if he could see how much they achieved. "I can see him now. He just shook his head and he said 'You'll never do it - you're just all talk.'"
Clearly, he was underestimating how determined these women really are. She leaves us with the most important life lesson of all: "You don't say that to a group of feisty Yorkshire women!"
The Girls opens at the Phoenix Theatre on Wednesday 28th January 2017.