Kathryn Armstrong caught up with Calendar Girls co-creator Gary Barlow and the cast on the WI’s home territory in Yorkshire.
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It’s the sunniest day that the Yorkshire Dales can summon, showing the glorious countryside at its absolute best.

Sun beats down on pretty Burnsall but it’s the imminent arrival of one Gary Barlow that’s getting this normally sleepy village hot under the collar.

A vintage bus, photography lighting kits and film crews suggest this is not your average Monday morning.

So too does the abundance of middle-aged women sporting black frocks, pearls and sunflowers. They are the Calendar Girls, real and fictional – and this is their home territory. Among their number are the ‘stage’ girls including Denise Welch, Fern Britton and Ruth Madoc.

They dash about in character, comfortable with the puzzlement of tourists and locals baffled by the carry on.

The ‘real’ Calendar Girls are no strangers to the spotlight – it is 20 years since they created such a stir with their then audacious idea to pose for a risqué nude calendar to raise money for a settee for their local hospital. The calendar and its subsequent success have raised a breathtaking £5 million for the Bloodwise charity, and made these WI cheerleaders global superstars of a kindly sort.

They’ve been portrayed on screen by Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Celia Imrie. Today they are meeting up with the latest team who will bring Calendar the Musical on its regional tour from August.

Gary Barlow is here for a photo session with the girls along with Tim Firth, his lifelong song-writing friend.

Together they’ve created the hit musical Calendar Girls, inspired by the true story of these WI ladies. A musical comedy showing how a group of ordinary ladies achieved something extraordinary.

But it’s not all cream buns, innuendo and big laughs as we see during a preview of some of the show’s songs back in the village hall.

They tackle the story’s very essence – the loss, sadness and loneliness that lies at the heart the calendar’s beginnings. In the sunflower-laden village hall, the cast and the original girls are joined by Gary and Tim to talk about the production. This new tour has been tweaked to create a tighter show says Gary: “I know Andrew Lloyd Webber’s still tinkering around with shows that have been on for 30 years. I think that as time moves along, the audience experience changes as well. People want different things from shows.”

Looking back at the process of writing the musical Gary recalls: “Everyone always said to me ‘don’t do a musical’, so when Tim came to me and said ‘do you want to do a musical?’ I said ‘no, no, it’s going to be a nightmare.’ He said, ‘no, it doesn’t have to be. If I feed you some lyrics, write some music, over time we’ll get it.’

“But, very cleverly, very early on we came to this village hall, and I can’t tell you how much it all made sense once I’d been in this room and met the girls.”

Denise Welch is delighted to be one of those ‘girls’.

“I love Gary Barlow”, she laughs, “he’s lovely, just gorgeous.”

“There are some people who are so precious about their work but with Gary if you came to him about something and said I’m not happy, he’d just say ‘don’t worry – we’ll change it.’”

Never a musical leading lady, Denise says, “I am an actress who can hold a tune. I knew Gary and Tim wanted the songs to come from what’s happening in the play and that’s what appealed to me – also, one of my late, great friends Lynda Bellingham was stalwart of this play.”

Denise will play Celia, a spiky former air hostess who admits to having had a boob job – Ceila Imrie’s ‘bigger buns’ role if in the film version. But baring all holds no fears for Denise.

In Burnsall she met the ‘real’ Celia who told her; “I’ve always wanted you to play Celia – you’re very naughty like me”, laughs Denise.

Calendar Girls Theatre Royal, Newcastle from 18 September 2018 and at Sunderland Empire next year. |

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