Calendar Girls: The Musical: a chat with star Ruth Madoc, original Calendar Girl Christine Clancy, and writers Tim Firth and Gary Barlow
“A Star Wars musical!” Gary Barlow’s face lights up like a kid on Christmas morning when I ask him and fellow writer Tim Firth if they’d like to work on a dream show.
“Someone must be working on that!” remarks Gary, before he’s rushed off from the launch of Calendar Girls: The Musical.
I’m in Burnsall, where Messrs Barlow, Firth and the Rylstone WI ladies who caught the imagination of the world have re-grouped to launch the revamped show.
It’s a sun-kissed day and the rolling hills and setting looks like it was dressed by the mother of all production designers.
CGTM is set to play Hull New Theatre in the autumn (2018), and as someone who paid to see Barlow and Firth’s masterpiece The Band twice in less than a week, I’ve no problem shelling out again for their other major production when it comes to Hull in November.
During our photo, Gary and Tim are impressed by my love of that show, possibly because I’m not the target audience.
The craftsmanship that went into that production was astounding. They fine-tuned The Band to ensure it had a widespread appeal, and the same care has gone into Calendar Girls.
I first wrote about it when the film was released in 2003. I’m not sure where the time went since then and now, but Firth’s script, the moving story and a wealth of beloved actors ensured that true story had stronger legs than Usain Bolt.
As you may know, the WI members hoped to raise money for a settee for their local hospital when one of their husbands fell ill with cancer. They wound up raising more than £5million for cancer charity Bloodwise.
That was almost two decades ago, but the movie inspired by the story, starring Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Celia Imrie, proved the tale was a winner. A sunflower-shaped ray of hope shining through the gloom of an illness that has touched everyone’s life. Mine included.
During the Press junket, I chat to Hi-De-Hi veteran Ruth Madoc, who plays Jessie in the new stage version.
Calendar Girls: The Musical tackles a subject she’s had first hand experience of: cancer (of the bladder).
“It was only on a well woman’s visit that they found it,” she explains. “I had no symptoms whatsoever. So I’m very aware of the fact that they caught it relatively early.”
I wonder what is it about Yorkshire that is so crucial to making this show work. Could it be set anywhere?
“I think it’s got to have a specific location. IE, you’ve got to have a village that is contained within itself for it to actually work,” she explains. “I mean it couldn’t be any better than the Dales of Yorkshire for goodness sake, because it’s so beautiful. But when you think about it, it could be Cumbria. It could be in the valleys of Wales.”
She adds: “There is another element to it. The nature; what is around you, and how it has coloured them; coloured these folk, and that’s the most interesting thing as well. It’s a sub-text to it, and a backdrop, but it has colour to it. That’s why it’s very special to Yorkshire.”
Ruth is not wrong about the location. As a first time visitor to Burnsall, I’m knocked out by how photogenic it is, so there’s no shortage of outdoor photo ops.
Ruth, Denise Welch and Fern Britton (returning to the stage for the first time in three decades) look radiant, alongside fellow cast members Anna Jane Casey, and Rebecca Storm. Gary and writer Tim Firth don’t look bad either, before they set off for Burnsall Village Hall just up the road.
There, three numbers from the show are performed by Ms Casey, Ms Storm and the assembled cast. I’m not ashamed to say I’m knocked out.
As anyone who’s seen the film will know, an integral element of the story is cake, so the fact I’m sat a few feet from a mouthwatering Victoria sponge makes me wary about literally putting my foot in it.
What I don’t realise until it’s presented to Fern is it was crafted at 6am that morning by Angela Baker.
It was her husband John who provided part of the inspiration for the Rylstone WI Calendar. He passed away 20 years ago in July.
When the tour launches in Leeds on August 16, there’s bound to be a few glasses raised to him and other loved ones lost since the story caught the imagination of the world.
For those attending the Hull New Theatre performances in November, Mr Barlow has no idea whether he’ll be making a surprise appearance, unlike that (greatest) day when he and a couple of famous friends turned up for The Band. (Mark and Howard I think their names were).
Okay, I am a fan of that trio, and while it’s a thrill to get a photo with Mr Barlow, it’s as much of a joy to meet Tim Firth, one of our greatest writers, and one of the reluctant stars behind the Calendar Girls success story.
What he doesn’t know about crafting a hit show or film, isn’t worth knowing, especially the integral nature of the music.
“The truth is with these shows, especially when music is in the room, music is a very unpredictable atom – the structure,” he explains as we sit down for a chat. “It can tell a story within a few notes.
“You use music as a character. It isn’t just there to make moments work. Music is there as a fundamental component that will take the place of words.”
Tim recently saw the show in Italy, but language aside, little had changed. Wherever it plays in the world, it’s always set in Yorkshire.
“The story has really strong roots to the landscape “ he explains. “Sometimes you don’t have to do that. You can do The Full Monty and reset it to America. I can’t really see that happening to this story.”
As the day winds down, I bump into Christine Clancy, one of the original WI ladies. It proves to be one of the highlights of an amazing few hours.
“I was September on this original calendar… with the teapot and the buns,” she laughs.
I ask Christine what was her opinion when she first saw the film?
“Oh we just absolutely loved it. Because we were part of the filming as well. We did have little cameo roles.
“They did quite a bit of filming here, across the other side of the river.”
Was she surprised that the story was so well received overseas?
“A little bit surprised because we didn’t understand how anyone outside the UK would understand the WI bit – the Women’s Institute. But everybody’s just loved it.”
Does she think the film and show sparked a new wave of interest in the WI?
“I believe it did, yes. There’s quite a lot of new WIs that started up because they found out about it (through Calendar Girls) I suppose.”
The million-dollar question I’m desperate to get an answer to: is there some magic that’s passed down to women where they are granted the ability to make incredible Victoria sponges?
“Not that I’m aware of, no,” she laughs. “I can bake them. They’re not bad. Mine’s a good Delia Smith recipe.”
And what does she think of the show?
“Oh it’s great. We obviously haven’t seen this new cast yet, but I’m sure they’ll be fantastic.”
A day later, while making a breakfast cuppa, I find ‘Dare’, one of the standout tracks, rattling through my head. ‘Yorkshire’ also becomes a welcome earworm. Like many of Gary and Tim’s creations, they have a habit of getting under your skin. That ‘fundamental component’ soon becomes part of your life.
(If you’ve never heard ‘Yorkshire’, imagine if the much missed Victoria Wood had penned a version of William Blake’s iconic Jerusalem, and you get the idea).
I’ve no idea whether Gary and Tim will be inspired enough to work on my dream show (the aforementioned Star Wars musical), but one thing’s for certain: I won’t have to force myself to see Calendar Girls: The Musical when it hits theatres later this year.
:: Calendar Girls: The Musical can be seen at Hull New Theatre from 20-24 November, 2018.
All photos: copyright Roger Crow