Stephanie Smith: Calendar Girls sprinkles light among shade in The Archers

Picture James Hardisty. The original Calendar girls.
Picture James Hardisty. The original Calendar girls.
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Whether you love it, loathe it or just feel mildly alarmed by it, Calendar Girls is here to stay – on screen, on stage, and now on the radio.

The Archers resident actor-director Lynda Snell has chosen the show as this year’s Christmas “panto”, so the stalwart women of Ambridge are currently getting to see far more of each other than usual as they prepare to bare all at the village hall.

Calendar Girls is the gift that keeps on giving, a phenomenon that continues to surprise, not least because most women of a certain age – let’s say, over 45 – will admit they can think of little worse than stripping off and allowing the world and her husband to glimpse them in the altogether. Most of us are far too busy obsessing over bingo wings, for starters, and wondering when bits are going to start dropping off.

Most women, but not all. In recent years increasing numbers of middle-aged women have been queuing up to get their kit off on stage and show what they’re made of, shielded only by milk jugs, sunflowers and “considerably bigger buns”.

From an original idea by Rhylstone WI to create a risque charity calendar, there has followed a blockbuster film in 2003 with Helen Mirren, then a stage adaptation in 2009 for which the performing rights were granted to amateur productions in 2012, resulting in a flurry of am-dram shows with seemingly no shortage of women ready and willing to do their bit for the community, for charity and presumably for art.

And now we have The Girls, Tim Firth and Gary Barlow’s new musical adaptation which has had standing ovations. I’ve not seen it yet but it runs at the Leeds Grand until Saturday. With titles such as So I’ve Had a Little Work Done and What Age Expects, it sounds as if Barlow’s songs work well with the theme of mid-to-later life and what it holds – loss, of loved ones and of confidence as women in particular feel they become invisible inside and outside the home; but also gains in friendship, humour and life-affirming joy.

It’s the humour and joy that The Archers is using to sprinkle light among shade as Joe Grundy faces Christmas in a hostel and Rob’s control over Helen Archer turns more sinister. Even Lynda has had to disrobe to prove she is prepared to put her buns where her… you get the idea. It all seems to be having a diverting and cathartic effect.

So, if you’re feeling a little down, jaded, perhaps unappreciated this Christmas, take inspiration from the Calendar Girls, hang it all and dare to bare. Or maybe just take your cardi off. No need to go mad.

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