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Tricia Stewart and Angela Barker brought their friends together to capture the world’s imagination with a series of photographs that raised both eyebrows and huge amounts of money for charity. So to discover it was being adapted by the dream team of Tim Firth and Gary Barlow was, literally, music to their ears. 

The story of the Calendar Girls began in 1998 when John Baker, husband of Angela Baker, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. John sadly passed away after just a few months of treatment, but in the months following their loss, Angela and her friends set about creating the now infamous calendar as something for Angela to focus on and, also, to prove John wrong – he said they’d never do it!

Through the sale of calendars, the group aimed to raise enough to buy a new sofa for the hospital where John was treated and were amazed when the calendar attracted international press attention. So far, they've raised millions for Bloodwise (formerly Lymphoma & Lymphoma Research), the blood cancer charity they have been long associated with.

Having already Inspired a hit movie, a sold-out stage show and now, with Gary Barlow at the musical helm, a critically acclaimed musical, the ladies of Rylstone WI are delighted that 20 twenty years after they whipped their kegs off for THAT calendar their story is still putting the ‘fun’ into fundraising.

“We never dreamed that our story would still be being told!” says Tricia Stewart (played by Helen Mirren in the film) whose idea the calendar was.

Angela Barker (Julie Walters) nods in agreement.

“We aimed to reach a total of £5,000 for Leukaemia Research [now Bloodwise] and we were worried about who, apart from our family and friends, would buy the calendars.”

They had nowt to fret about.

Selling eighty-eight thousand copies in the first year alone, double that of the Pirelli calendar, they won hearts worldwide and have since raised almost £6 million for Bloodwise.

“It is an amazing charity and things have changed so much in twenty years. John would have had a very different chance today,” says Tricia. 

Angela recalls how the calendar helped her to deal with her grief.

“It was exciting because we were actually doing something. John said we’d never do it, but Trish got us organised. He would have been so proud. But taking my clothes off wasn’t brave. Having sat with John for five months going through what he went through, well, taking my clothes off was nothing.

“Besides, Terry Logan is a really well known watercolour artist and his wife, Linda [Miss July!], is also an artist. We knew that they would make the calendar beautiful and classy.”

Indeed it was. The sepia prints of ladies doing traditional WI activities was as beautiful as the Yorkshire Dales themselves.

Listening to Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s soundtrack while we chat, the adjective ‘beautiful’ seems pertinent. Especially during the song 'Kilimanjaro' which tells the story of loss with heart-breaking astuteness. 

 “The music is so good at getting the emotions of our story across,” says Angela, who recalls producer David Pugh coming for tea and telling her about the musical.

“He pulled a CD out and suddenly I was sitting in my front room listening to Gary Barlow singing songs about us!

“We’ve known Tim for ages (Firth also wrote the screenplay and the stage play) and he’s like a son. I was a bit scared meeting Gary, but he’s lovely and so understanding.”

“The musical is the truest portrayal of what we did,” agrees Tricia.

“It has the husbands and the children and it captures very much how we were.”

An inspirational story on several levels, the celebration of female friendship is something especially dear to the ladies.

“The WI is all about that,” says Tricia, quick to point out that it is by no means an exclusively female story, or indeed an exclusively female show.

“Cancer touches everyone and so does laughter and loss. It’s a very honest show. The cast is brilliant, the songs are incredible and the whole thing is so uplifting. It makes people think that they could go and do something to make a difference too,” she says, concurring with Angela’s interjection that they have been extremely fortunate in the people who have been part of their incredible journey.

Committed to continuing to raise money and awareness for Bloodwise (bucket collections take place at every performance of the musical) surely, I venture, the 20th anniversary of the calendar warrants a ‘two-decades-on’ version?

Tricia greets the suggestion with a hoot of laughter.

“We’d need to be behind a wardrobe now!” she chuckles.

Angela is thoughtful. “But we ARE talking about a re-issue. Perhaps with the original photos the six of us who are still fundraising and six of the actresses from the musical?”

As for their personal highlights across the years, they simply can’t isolate their favourites: the movie premiere in Leicester Square with members of the WI standing each side of the red carpet and singing 'Jerusalem', international appearances on telly, being the hit of Cannes Film Festival – “there are just so many!” they chorus.

“And I haven’t given up on the hope of seeing the musical on Broadway,” says Angela. “Now that will be a night to remember!”

Asking if they are still members of the WI earns me a look that suggests I’m bonkers – of course they are!

“I’m going tonight. The talk is on bed pans and false teeth!” giggles Angela.

Tricia adds: “WI nationwide have been our biggest supporters. Our Chairwoman was a fantastic woman who saw it for what it was.

“And membership went up as a result, with much younger women joining too. Nowadays they meet in pubs as well as village halls, and you don’t have to bake!”

Tricia, who claims to ‘keep the Dales flexible’ as a Pilates teacher, favours more active pastimes over baking. Taking up open water swimming at the age of sixty-five, she’s done the Great North Swim twice and is attempting seventy open water swims in her 70th year. Both ladies are also kept busy with children and grandchildren.

“I’m terrible at baking, that’s why I took my clothes off” confesses Angela, “But my cheese scones are alright.”

As I recall her buns aren’t bad either…

©Vicky Edwards

Book here to see Calendar Girls, 15th-19th October.

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