Tim Firth and Gary Barlow. Pic credit Matt Crockett
IN 1999 a group of women from Rylstone WI in Yorkshire stripped off to create a nude calendar which they hoped would raise enough money to buy their local hospital a sofa to be used by patients’ relatives
They had been inspired to do so by the death of their friend Angela Baker’s husband John of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the year before.
However, nothing could have prepared them for the way it took off. In fact, the 2000 calendar featuring the women, and with the eventual blessing of the WI, was an instant hit selling out in the first week. Thousands more were ordered and printed, all of which sold out raising much more money than they had ever hoped for.
To date the ladies have been instrumental in raising almost £5million for charity Bloodwise, and they are still actively fundraising.
Their story captured not only the imagination of the country at large, but also that of the film industry. And in true fairytale style it was eventually adapted for the big screen in 2003 by Tim Firth, with a stellar cast including Julie Walters, Helen Mirren and Celia Imrie.
The award-winning Calendar Girls then inspired a stage version of the story in 2008, again written by Tim, which was also received with critical acclaim.
But Tim wasn’t done yet and five years ago he approached good friend and Take That singer songwriter Gary Barlow to see if he wanted to join forces and turn the story into a musical.
Since then the pair have been writing, re-writing and workshopping it as well as staging performances at the Lowry and in Leeds, not to mention in the village hall in Burnsall, Yorkshire, where the idea for the calendar was born.
Re-writes and revisions have followed each stage, all with the feedback of the original ladies. It has changed quite a bit in the five years since its inception and Gary and Tim now feel the time is right to bring to audiences and so it will be heading to the Phoenix Theatre in London where it opens for a three month run on January 28.
The cast, which includes Joanna Riding as Annie and Claire Moore as Chris, are busy rehearsing and it is during one such rehearsal that I meet up with Gary, Tim and some of the cast to find out more about The Girls.
“We have known each other for so many years and always flirted with the idea of working together,” Tim tells me when I ask what inspired a further exploration of the story.
“When the idea came up to do it as a musical I resisted initially because musicals can be the best and worst kind of theatre. They can be really good or they can be awful and they are a tricky beast to get right.
“However I took Gary to see the stage version of the show to see what he thought and if there was room for song in it as it struck me it was a story we should be writing. Fortunately he was keen.”
Gary says he was in no doubt about the idea.
“I could hear the music straight away,” he smiles. “It was brilliant and I went home and immediately started thinking about songs that would complement the words and played about with melodies.
“It’s been fantastic as it’s a completely different process to writing a pop song so it’s also been a chance for me to learn new skills, be part of the rehearsal process, working with this amazing company and I’ve absolutely loved it.”
We chat in the studios where the cast has been gathered to do four of the numbers to select audience which includes journalists as well as the original calendar girls themselves.
And not only can you sense the obvious passion everyone involved has for the project, not least Gary and Tim who have invested the last five years working on it, it is also a very moving experience. Some of the songs are extremely emotional, reducing many of us to tears.
“It’s one thing writing the songs but when these amazing actors put the emotion in it it’s incredibly moving,” agrees Gary, nodding.
“In fact it moves me every time and I look around and see that we are all touched by it. But the story is incredible and true and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be part of this. What these ladies did and continue to do is absolutely at the heart of everything and touches you on so may levels.
“What’s fantastic is that here we are surrounded by the ladies who started it all off, and the incredible actors and actresses, it’s a gorgeous company.
“Another reason I wanted to be involved was that after having seen the stage version I fell in love with theatre.
“As a songwriter to be offered this opportunity is fantastic and for me and it has been a real honour to be involved.”
However with the film and the stage play both having been hugely successful, both Gary and Tim were keen that the musical should be distinctly different, and not just by the addition of music.
As a result, The Girls delves deeper into the lives of the women, bringing their families and the effect it had on them all, to the fore as well as showing how it all happened and how the women achieved something extraordinary.
“This is a completely different beast,” smiles Tim. “This has been a chance to write what I’d call a village green musical.
“You create a small group of characters in a village where nothing really changes or happens and then this extraordinary thing happens.
“It’s a quality time you have with these characters. You are allowed to spend time with them, their husbands and kids, where you hear the fathers talking to their kids, about their work and so on - these are the new elements that weren’t in the play or film. It adds another layer.”
But for those who are fans of the story, Gary and Tim say the central part of it, that of the ladies making the calendar, is all still there.
“In creating the calendar these ordinary women did something that had never been done before and it was such an extraordinary endeavour,” says Tim.
“I think it’s that that captured peoples’ imaginations. And it’s now been copied by other groups all over the world - but these ladies were the first.”
Perhaps because of the provenance it has taken a long time - five years, countless corrections and 112 songs in fact, to get it where it is today.
“It’s changed a lot since we started out five years ago,” laughs Tim. “In fact it’s about 25 per cent changed as we workshopped it and took it to Burnsall to get opinion from the people who matter - the community in which the story began.”
“It was really special to do that,” adds Gary smiling. “We have gained so much from these wonderful women and yes it’s been a long time to get this far but we had to get it right, to do the story justice and be faithful to their astonishing achievement.
“I’d also never done anything like this before, never written a musical, so Tim said to me ‘don’t go and watch anything in the West End’. He was right of course.
“So I just sat down and put the music to the words and made a mini album of songs for him. He then took them away and moved some of the songs, the words or the sections around before sending them back to me. It became a patchwork quilt of songs and we built it all like that. It was really clever and a wonderful way of working.
“So now, when we sit down and hear that it’s right, it’s wonderful.”
And Tim agrees.
“Sometimes for example the songs came in quite up tempo and I would put them in but then I remembered the story and realised that although it’s a fast song, something in it is crying out for it to be slower,” he explains. “So things got changed quite a bit.”
“It was and is an emotional journey,” admits Gary. “It’s inspired by a true and incredible story so writing about something that has happened was a big responsibility.
“And while it’s obviously quite sad and emotional in places it’s also very funny. As a musician, to be able to write about the strength of these women in the face of adversity is incredibly uplifting - and then watch your graft translate on to the stage, it’s brilliant.
“We can’t wait now for it to get to the theatre and just hope audiences love it just as much!”
The Girls is on at the Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, between Saturday January 28 and Saturday, April 22. Tickets from £29.50. Visit www.thegirlsmusical.com or call the box office on 0844 871 7629 for full listings.