MENTION the Women’s Institute (WI) and most people will think of jam and cake making ladies of a certain age in the Shires.
However, the work and interests of the WI and its members extend far beyond the homemaking image most of us have.
Indeed many have championed causes that we might consider as far away from that jam and Jerusalem homely image as possible.
Jean Johnson was one such lady. Together with Shirley Landels this genteel lady from the Hampshire WI began a campaign for the decriminalisation of prostitution and to improve conditions for working girls everywhere. Over several years the two ladies travelled the world looking for the perfect brothel before being contacted by brothel madame Holly Spencer who showed them what they felt was the model by which others should aspire to.
They even took their campaign to Parliament and despite the deaths of both ladies before their dream could be realised, their work is being continued.
Their story also caught the attention of writer Barbara Jane Mackie who was so inspired by it that she has turned it into a musical.
Rumpy Pumpy! is currently on a small UK tour and is coming to the Union Theatre in Southwark next week.
It features a stellar cast including Louise Jameson, perhaps best known for her roles in Dr Who, EastEnders, Bergerac and Tenko, who plays Jean.
By her own admission, it’s been quite a rollercoaster ride for Louise who describes herself as “not a natural singer” but in a chat ahead of next week’s visit to the Union Theatre, she tells me she’s thrilled to be part of what she considers to be an important show.
“I love this story,” she says warmly. “It’s about two ordinary women who think the WI should represent all women - not just the jam and Jerusalem brigade - and so they try and change the lives of thousands of working girls. It’s extraordinary.
“It came about after Jean saw the news stories surrounding the murders of the Ipswich sex workers a few years ago. It troubled her greatly so she decided to go down to the bypass in Portsmouth where the prostitutes hang out and interview them.
“She is eventually joined by Shirley and the two of them set up a mobile brothel in Winchester and they even drive to Number 10 with thousands of signatures on a petition asking for brothels to be licensed.
“Unfortunately Brexit put everything on the back burner so we need to keep the campaign going.
“It’s such a lovely idea though, the meeting of two conflicting worlds and how they collide - on the one hand you have this rather stuffy image of the WI, which I personally think is rather unfair and feel the WI has been much maligned, and on the other there is their quest to help those working in the sex industry.
“There was a contingent in the WI ranks who didn’t approve but these two women were determined and took themselves around the world to find the perfect brothel which is quite something.
“Among the many they went to were ones in Amsterdam and the Bunny Farm Brothel in Nevada all of which they were unimpressed with. Eventually they found one in New Zealand which they thought was the template for any brothel anywhere. For them it was about getting rid of the drugs, the pimps and getting them VAT registered and legitimate.
“The show itself is very funny, the cast is fantastic including four wonderful young women dancers who get to strut their stuff and it’s huge fun to be a part of.
“However, I feel very honoured to be chosen to play Jean and raise the profile of these two extraordinary women and help tell their story.”
Louise admits that she knew nothing about Jean or her campaign before taking on the role. As part of her research she watched a documentary about Jean and her work and she also found out more about her when Jean’s WI group came to one of the shows during the tour.
And although Louise says the role is a dream, she admits it has not only taken her out of her comfort zone in terms of stretching herself artistically but she also feels a huge responsibility to honour Jean in her portrayal.
“It’s quite something,” she says. “I had the honour of meeting Jean early on at one of the read throughs so I have always got a picture of her in my head. She said she was thrilled with it all but sadly she died before the play opened which is such a shame.
“Her WI group came to see it recently and said she would have loved it - I couldn’t ask for more.
“Jean was extraordinary - it is a brave cause and one that should be addressed sooner rather than later. If nothing else, we are getting their story out there which is ultimately what she wanted.
“When I saw the documentary about her I saw how extremely glamorous she was. She always looked immaculate but for this show we wanted to show the clashing of the two cultures so instead we have made them slightly frumpy.
“I’ve made her quite proper although I do trot around in what I call my tarts trotters,” she adds laughing.
“I’m 65 now so not really used to tottering around on such high heels! But it’s going OK!”
The show marks a welcome return to the stage for Louise who many will remember for her roles on TV most notably Dr Who and Bergerac and more recently in Doc Martin.
Down to earth, warm and chatty, she regales me with stories about her varied roles often chuckling at the memories.
“I’ve been so blessed in my career and I’ve been able learn from every job I’ve done,” she says cheerfully.
“I was so lucky to get the Bergerac job. At the time I was a mum of two toddlers and the BBC put me up in a bungalow in Jersey - I got to kiss John Nettles who is the most adorable and wonderful man to work with, soak up the Jersey sun and stay there for four months - what’s not to love!
“They did make it look rather idyllic but it’s not tropical all the time though. The islanders loved it of course because of the tourism.
“Port Isaac where we film Doc Martin was the same. I got to stay in a lovely two bed cottage so all my friends could come and stay with me in Cornwall!” she laughs.
“Tenko was another one that was great to work on. It was set in a prisoner of war camp in the Second World War although we actually filmed it in a sand pit in Dorset,” she chuckles. “We weren’t playing real people but every story line was based on a true story.
“I found that incredibly rewarding although it was hard hitting. I have also never laughed so much in my life - because the subject matter was so dark we had to find the humour in it so we all got a touch of mild hysteria.
“But all these experiences are what makes this job so extraordinary - and Dr Who was a case in point. It was a 10 month job from 1976 to 1977 out of a 45 year career but has given me so much and has taken me all over the world with all the conventions that have followed on from it. It’s extraordinary and I never dreamed it would give me the future it has.
“And now I’m here and tottering around in my heels!” she laughs. “Reactions so far to this show have been brilliant so I’m looking forward to coming to the Union Theatre. I’ve not performed there before so it will be lovely to make my debut there and in such an important show.
“I just hope that those who come to see it are inspired so that we can turn Jean and Shirley’s cause into the successful one that it should be - wouldn’t it be great if all politicians, including Teresa May came to see it?
“And one day I hope someone like director Richard Curtis might be inspired to make it into a film - wouldn’t that be something!”
Rumpy Pumpy! is on at the Union Theatre, Union Street between Monday November 14 and Saturday, November 19. Tickets cost £20. Visit www.uniontheatre.biz or call the box office on 020 7261 9876 for full listings.