What were you doing on 9/11? Tim Firth remembers it well. It was on that sunny autumn day that he first sat down to write the screenplay for Calendar Girls in a west London hotel room. The first 20 minutes of his scenario, based on the real-life story of 12 Women’s Institute members who famously posed semi-nude for a calendar to raise money to buy a sofa for their local cancer unit, rolled out onto his laptop as happily as a WI jam roll plopping onto a baking tray. But when he stopped for a break, switched on the TV and saw those huge plumes of dark smoke looming over New York’s Twin Towers, he couldn’t string two words together for the rest of the day.
Comedy out of darkness
“It was a strange experience, but heaven-sent – the whole world felt dark and fragile,” Firth recalls. “When I look back now, I’m sure that’s partly why my own search for brightness and optimism at that time made me see the story of these ladies as an uplifting comedy that comes straight out of a darkness.
“The film, even more so than the stage play, turned out to be just like the original WI calendar in 1999 – a bit of a sunlamp that sends you out feeling warm and joyous and yet shines a light on what started it all off in the first place,” he continues, referring to the unexpected tragic death of one of their husbands, John Baker, after contracting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Indeed, it was the experience of the darkness of death and then moving into bright sunlight that inspired the Rystone & District WI ladies (ages 45 to 66) from North Yorkshire to go way beyond their initial idea, which was simply to replace the usual images of local churches on their annual calendar with a one-off alternative showing pictures of them naked while modestly engaged in classic WI tasks such as flower pressing and knitting, all designed to discreetly hide those floppy bits (“no front bottoms” was the golden rule).
No more jam & Jerusalem
Having swapped their staid WI “jam and Jerusalem” image for a female Full Monty, and following John Baker’s death, the charity calendar just grew and grew – from an original print run of just 5,000, to selling enough copies annually to raise some £2 million for Leukaemia Research – they even out-sold the Britney Spears calendar in the US after appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Unexpectedly, reaction to the calendar also sparked off a torrent of letters from around the world, mostly from women describing how the girls’ zesty confidence had perked-up their own self-esteem. Then, having dropped everything for a good cause, the Calendar Girls movie (only six of the original eleven WI women sold the film rights to their stories) was released in 2003 starring Julie Walters and Helen Mirren, and became one of the top 50 grossing films in UK cinema history.
“When my husband was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1998,” says John Baker’s widow, Angela (Miss February in the original calendar), “we coped with his illness by focussing on short-term goals – the main one being to see his favourite plant, the sunflower, bloom again. John didn’t live to reach his goal, but we’ve retained the sunflower as the symbol of the Calendar Girls and to remember John in everything we do.”
“That’s exactly what the film and the play are all about – in the middle of tragedy, there’s a beam of sunshine,” Firth tells me. “One of the loveliest reviews said: ‘I’ve laughed at stories and cried at stories, but never laughed and cried at the same time’. I suppose it works like that because, although I had never actually met them before I started writing the screenplay, I took my inspiration from the truth of what happened after John’s death, including their massive falling-out over which film producer to go with, which I dramatised through the break-down in the friendship between Chris (Lynda Bellingham on stage) and Annie (Patricia Hodge).”
Left-right: Calendar Girls’ Gaynor Faye, Patricia Hodge, Sian Phillips, Lynda Bellingham,
Elaine C Smith and Julia Hills. The cast also features Brigit Forsyth as the WI leader.
Screen vs stage
There were many good reasons for Firth to be chosen to write the film and adapt his own screenplay for the new stage version, also starring Sian Phillips, Gaynor Faye, Julia Hills and Elaine C Smith (ages 36 to74). For a start, he’s become pretty adept at transposing his own work from screen to stage and vice versa. He’s also inherited Alan Ayckbourn’s knack of writing popular comedy with an edge. Indeed, when Firth left Cambridge (where a young Sam Mendes inveigled him into acting and he began writing for Footlights), Ayckbourn commissioned him to write a play for the Stephen Joseph studio in Scarborough. Man of Letters (recently re-written as Sign of the Times and currently touring the UK starring Stephen Tompkinson) led to the commissioning of the full-length Neville’s Island, which transferred to the West End and was subsequently adapted by Firth for TV.
Firth’s association with Ayckbourn also included Safari Party, directed by Ayckbourn himself, which transferred to Hampstead Theatre in 2003, at the same time as his Olivier Award-winning first musical, Our House (with music by Madness), opened in the West End. His first TV sitcom about a group of lads in the Territorial Army, All Quiet on the Preston Front, ran for five years and other TV comedy plays have included Once Upon a Time in the North and The Flint Street Nativity, which he has successfully re-written for the stage. Firth’s most recent TV film was Cruise of the Gods, starring Steve Coogan, while his other movies include Blackball, starring Paul Kaye, and Kinky Boots, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.
So Firth’s got comedy in his veins, but it’s when he fills in his family background, that you begin to see why he was destined to bring the ladies’ story to a wider world. “It came straight from the heart,” he responds. “I adored writing Calendar Girls, partly because I’m from the area. As a kid, we had our holidays in that part of Yorkshire and my parents spent their honeymoon in the village where the film was shot. My gran was a huge WI nut too. She did the whole thing – holding fêtes, having tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. I still remember my mum being dragged along to WI meetings and finding it all hysterically funny.”
Firth even called the Victoria sponge prize at the beginning of the play the May Wilkinson Trophy because May Wilkinson was his gran’s name. “It’s my little thank you to her for unwittingly providing so much inside information about the WI all those years ago.”
The screen-to-stage adaptation of Calendar Girls was Firth’s idea. “I thought about it almost as soon as the film was released, but with stage adaptations you have to decide on what the point is. There has to be a theatrical gene, a theatrical reason for it to exist and a theatrical benefit too, otherwise you end up with artistic anaemia and feel like you’re watching a pallid version of the movie. You can’t do it with any old film.
Group comedy bonding
“The joy of putting Calendar Girls on stage was that it specifically opened up more opportunities for group comedy. And if I hadn’t felt that their story could be told in a church hall, I’d never have written a word. In the movie, the church hall goes to the world. But on stage, the world comes to the church hall. As soon as I realised that, it gave the whole thing theatricality, but it also meant there was natural wastage of subsidiary stories and characters that weren’t necessary to make it work on stage, such as their trip to America and the situations with the moody teenage son and the cheating husband.”
One highly theatrical, and surprisingly emotional, moment that you don’t get in the film is when the letters start arriving from around the world. On stage, they quietly flutter down from the sky, creating a sort of silent word-fall. “In the film, you just had a factual representation of a pile of letters, but on stage the potency of these letters coming out of thin air says so much more about how those women must have felt. It’s the same with the arrival of a field of sunflowers at the very end of the play, which is effective because it’s so simply done. On stage, you can deliver that emotional blow to the stomach. You literally say it with sunflowers.”
Nude, not naked
Then, of course, the key scene where the women strip (“it’s not naked, it’s nude,” is the other mantra) and pose for the calendar photos takes on a whole new riskiness when it’s live and in the flesh. When Gaynor Faye (Miss November) takes off her top and covers her embarrassment with two cupcakes, the audience roars with laughter. By the time Bellingham (Miss August) reveals an ample bottom covered by a few carefully arranged rose blossoms, the hilarity has hit the roof and doesn’t return to stalls level until the mid-way through the interval.
“On film, this was a controlled situation, whereas on stage and live, it’s ‘hey, these ladies are actually going to go for it’! You can feel the sense of anticipation in the auditorium from the moment the curtain goes up. When they shoot the first photo, there’s an immediate release and the entire audience explodes and bursts into applause every time the camera goes off. But it only works because it’s written for the stage as if it was choreography for a musical.
“What I thought was going to be a quick scene at the end of act one, now takes 15 minutes to play because of the scale of the laughter and that carnival atmosphere. In a way, it’s the most authentic part of the whole play because it emulates the euphoria that the women must have experienced when they first took off their clothes. It’s liberating. You could never achieve any of that in a cinema.”
Convincing female characters
But how come, I ask, is he able to make his female characters so convincing to a mostly female audience? Only Ayckbourn, and Firth’s other mentor, Willie Russell (they’ve collaborated on a number of songwriting projects), seem to be on a similar wavelength. “There was a formative moment when I was writing the second series of Preston Front. A woman script editor said the problem with the show was that I put all my female characters on a pedestal. ‘Just look at them,’ she said, ‘they are all infallible, boring icons, and yet your blokes are riddled with neuroses and consequently they are more interesting’.”
Does that mean you have to make your women like your men? “In a way you do. As a male writer you always fear that you are being judgemental, but you have to completely put all that aside and simply write about the women you know and deal with every day – it makes for much more interesting characters.”
Firth says his next big project is to write book and lyrics for an original musical, but where next for Calendar Girls? Real Calendar Girls Angela Baker, Tricia Stewart, Beryl Bamforth, Lynda Logan, Christine Clancy and Ros Fawcett continue to fundraise for Leukaemia Research with sponsored walks, talks and personal appearances. And for as long as the West End will have them, their stage incarnations will continue to relive that life-changing moment when they went “nude, not naked”. “I guess the real legacy of the play will be when it’s done by a WI group in a church hall in Yorkshire,” Firth smiles cheekily. “So long as they’ve got good heating, I’d go!”
Calendar Girls opens on 20 April 2009 (previews from 4 April) at the West End’s Noël Coward Theatre, where it’s initially booking until 19 September 2009. A version of this article appears in the April issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is out now in participating theatres. NOTE: After the April issue, the magazine will be available on subscription only as one of the many benefits of our Theatre Club. To guarantee you receive all future editions, click here to subscribe now!!