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Sarah Jane Buckley, Sue Devaney, Julia Hills, Judy Holt, Ruth Madoc, Lisa Maxwell and Rebecca Storm star in Tim Firth & Gary Barlow award-winning production based on the true story of a group of ordinary ladies who achieved something extraordinary.
What’s On speaks to playwright and screenwriter Tim Firth about his heartwarming production Calendar Girls The Musical.
The original ‘calendar girls’ took the world by storm when they posed nude for a charity calendar following the death of one of their husbands from the blood cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Since then, their witty, uplifting story has touched millions across the world.
In 2003, Tim Firth took on the task of writing the screenplay for a film about their story, and then followed it up with a stage play. He then joined forces with Gary Barlow - and Calendar Girls The Musical was born…
“Gary and I have known each other for a very long time,” Tim explains. “We’d talked about writing a musical together for ages but had nothing to write it about. Seeing as I’d already done Calendar Girls as a film and a play, it was the last place I was looking. But the play was always slightly straining to be a musical, I think. What then emerged was a different structure to the story. If you’ve seen the play, the calendar shoot comes at the end of the first act, but in the musical it only comes right at the very end. What this does is allow us to spend more time with the women, their husbands and their children. This little village becomes a small poem for the rest of the world that’s full of hope and wit, and is all about defeating despair through comedy.”
Tim admits Calendar Girls is close to his heart: “It’s set in a tiny village in Yorkshire, which also happened to be the village where my parents went on their honeymoon about 50 years ago, and to which they took us back many times as kids. I knew the views and I knew the way the people spoke, so there was a degree of familiarity there for me that helped a lot. Purely by chance, my family and I had gone to a Yorkshire fete and bought the calendar a year before I was even approached to do the film. So I’d had it hanging on my wall for a year and I’d already met the real Calendar Girls! It felt as if fate and the Yorkshire Dales were pushing me towards this story. In fact, given all those coincidences, I think I’d have been really annoyed if someone else had written it!”
Tim has a number of theories as to why the original calendar was such a phenomenon: “In the first instance, it was completely unexpected and such a funny idea to do a nude calendar with normal people in their normal lives, especially for women at the local Women’s Institute. They started an international phenomenon and raised so much money for the charity Bloodwise. The nude calendar rose in popularity as a way of raising cash for a variety of causes while at the same time having a really good laugh. What made the Calendar Girls’ calendar so special was that, firstly, the photographs, taken by Terry Logan, were works of art within themselves, and secondly, that it was understated. It was all about what you didn’t see; it was a fan dance. Also, if there had just been the idea of making the calendar, as opposed to making it in response to grief and loss, the mixture would have been a lot less potent. The reason people react to it in the theatre is because everyone has been touched by loss and grief, even if it’s not directly through disease. The reason it works as a show is because people are laughing and crying at the same time. In a way, that’s what people across the world were doing in response to the actual calendar; it was a witty act of war against grief. People respond to that bravery and valiance.”
Tim views the original Calendar Girls as pioneers of body positivity, challenging the idea that a woman’s body had to fit with a certain image: “It’s 20 years since they made the calendar, and they were so forward-looking with regard to body-image issues. Obviously, they hadn’t been airbrushed in any way. Also, in the lead-up to the calendar, they all decided to go on a diet, but that didn’t work out and they gave up! I think what’s so beautiful about the pictures on the calendar is that they’re just human beings. These aren’t women of an exactly similar shape and body type - and that should be celebrated. Without wishing to make a statement about body image, they actually made a very loud statement about it because it encouraged a great sense of collective support. What was great about the calendar, and what’s great about the story subsequently being on stage, is that you get the idea of women sticking together, saluting everybody’s individual body shape and encouraging each other for a common goal.”
Calendar Girls isn’t the only musical on which Tim has collaborated with Gary Barlow. They also worked together on the Take That-inspired show, The Band.
“There’s a saying that all playwrights write basically the same play but from different angles throughout their career, and I think that could be applied to songwriters also. This can be pretty damaging for a musical because after two hours of sitting in a theatre, it can become pretty obvious that you’re hearing almost the same song over and over. The great thing about Gary is that he gave me so many ideas. Also, I think because he’s been working the length of time that he has, he responds to different lyrics with different kinds of songs. Originally we had over 90 songs, and it’s like looking at the wall of an old-fashioned sweet shop. Through the story, you hit certain points and jars start to rattle on the shelf and everything falls into place. To do that, though, you have to have a very strong work ethic, and Gary certainly has that. So in Calendar Girls, we have the variety of songs and tones that you need for a musical - and in a more acoustic style too, rather than the pop music Gary is best known for.”
Tim has other exciting projects in the pipeline: “I’ve got my new comedy, This Is My Family, and Gary and I have already started thinking of ideas for our next musical, so we’re busy stockpiling songs. We’ve also been preparing for The Band’s tour of Germany, and then Gary will be going out on tour but will also be writing during that time.”
And finally, back to Calendar Girls. What does Tim think makes the production an experience not to be missed?
“I think it’s an unusual show in that, for many, it will be the first time they’ve ever ‘craughed’, to use a borrowed phrase, which means crying and laughing at the same time. Calendar Girls is also funny enough for you to want to come back again. People just can’t seem to get enough of it!”
Calendar Girls The Musical shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 28 May to Saturday 8 June, and then at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Tuesday 24 to Saturday 28 September.
Over a cuppa with three of the cast of Calendar Girls The Musical, Vicky Edwards discovers that Ruth Madoc is ‘perky,’ Fern Britton’s intuition sometimes malfunctions, Denise Welch can’t be doing with temper tantrums, and Gary Barlow and Tim Firth are to musical comedy what Mary Berry is to baking…
If Calendar Girls The Musical were a cake, the recipe would read something like this: Take an inspirational true story, add one super-talented writer and one world famous pop star, and mix their expertise thoroughly. Once you have a perfect blend of warmth, humour, poignancy and music, line a 12-inch diameter cake tin with an accomplished production team and a cast featuring a clutch of our finest actors and singers. Lace with a sublime supporting cast and rehearse well. Garnish with a stunning set and gorgeous lights and serve to rapturous applause up and down the country.
Thrilled to be one of the girls (but keeping her kit firmly on - “I’m playing Marie, so no nips or noo for me!”), presenter and bestselling novelist Fern Britton cheerfully admits that she almost missed out, initially telling her agent that on instinct it wasn’t for her.
“And then came the call saying that Gary Barlow would like to have a cup of coffee and a chat with me!” she exclaims, eyes bright and smile wide. “Suddenly I found myself in a room reading the script, with Gary, Tim Firth [writer], the producers and the casting director. And boy, am I glad that they persisted!
“Never was I happier to be wrong about something. Some people don’t like musicals because of all the bursting into song, but with this you hardly know that a song has started until it’s halfway through. You’re totally pulled along by your earholes, and the songs really advance the story. Tim Firth is a god! He wrote the play, the movie and the musical - he’s like a Yorkshire Stephen Sondheim with the lyrics. As for Gary, he’s written some incredible songs.”
Having previously starred in the stage play version, Ruth Madoc is the old hand of the assembled cast, but she wasn’t convinced about returning to the subject.
“And then I realised that my agent had been working on it for the past six months, so I thought I’d jolly well better go and do the audition! I expected them to want me to play Marie again, but they said they wanted me to play the older woman this time, which is wonderful; Jessie has got some fantastic lines.”
Based on a true story, Tim Firth’s film and his subsequent award-winning play, Calendar Girls is a reworking of the award-winning and critically acclaimed The Girls, which played to packed houses in the West End last year and is now returning home to Yorkshire to kick off a new UK & Ireland tour.
Loose Women’s Denise Welch stirs her tea and reflects on why the story, in various incarnations, has endured: “It’s about friendship and community, and I think we all relate to that. Celia, my character, has been off as an air hostess and has always been looking for something more. When she comes back, she realises that it was already there. As we get older, we all realise that.”
The first question Denise asked when she was approached about appearing in Calendar Girls was who else was in the show: “I’m too old and long in the tooth to be dealing with egos and temper tantrums. Thankfully we all get on, but second to the script, that was the most important thing to me.”
The show attracts a hugely diverse audience - so why do the ladies think that is?
“It’s an incredibly human story,” says Fern Britten. “Life is all about loss, love, making a mess, making mistakes, clearing it up and atoning. It’s a terribly hackneyed phrase, but our show is life-affirming.”
“And it is a different proposition when you have music to the extent that we have,” says Ruth Madoc, who, as an experienced musical theatre actress, knows a thing or two about the genre. “The music expands the subject far bigger than the play ever was. It’s fabulous, and audiences are in for a real treat. The music makes it a wonderful, emotional journey, but it’s seamless; it slides into the dialogue. It never feels like ‘here comes a song’, and that makes it a very powerful piece of theatre. I’m really on the boil about it!”
But the show has even more to offer. Having already raised huge amounts of money through merchandise and bucket collections at each performance, the production will continue to benefit the charity Bloodwise - a fact of which the ladies are extremely proud.
Discussing the tour, which takes them all over the UK, Ruth says she’s looking forward to seeing new places and revisiting old friends: “I prefer touring to being in the West End. I like the feel of companies; the family orientation, which harks back to how it was when I started out 60 years ago. The kids and the grandchildren will come in dribs and drabs. I’m a National Trust fan, so we’ll be exploring and will see lots of friends along the way.”
So is Ruth worried about disrobing on stage - does ‘the Great British Take Off’ hold any fears? She waves any concerns aside: “We’ll have great big pineapples or whatever in front of us, so the audience won’t see much. And besides,” she adds, with a naughty glint in her eye, “at 75, you really don’t care!”
Calendar Girls The Musical visits the Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, from Tues 13 to Sat 17 November.
The show returns to the Midlands region next year, stopping off at Birmingham Hippodrome from 28 May to 8 June.
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