IT STARTED life as a tongue-in-cheek way to raise money for a cause close to their hearts and went on to spawn a smash hit movie, as well as a record-breaking stage show.
Now the Calendar Girls are rubbing shoulders with songwriting royalty, descending on the capital yesterday to take a look at rehearsals for the new musical telling their extraordinary story.
Take That star Gary Barlow treated the ladies from the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute to a sneak preview of the songs he has penned for The Girls, which premieres in Leeds next month.
“Their presence finishes the whole thing off,” said the singer songwriter. “I was thinking when I saw them all what a beautiful thing it is for this to continue and for them to watch themselves up there.
“It’s hard not to be emotional, not just because it’s your work but because this is their story.”
The original Calendar Girls film, which starred Dame Helen Mirren and went on to take more than £60m at box offices around the world, told the story of the group of Yorkshire women who produced a risque calendar to raise money for leukaemia research, turning them into unlikely celebrities in the process.
Their decision to bare nearly all was inspired by the death of group member Angela Baker’s husband, John, from non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1998.
The 11 women photographed for the calendar all hailed from the villages around Skipton.
And yesterday six of them took a trip to London to see their latest incarnation in the hotly anticipated musical, which opens at the Grand Theatre on November 14.
“It’s 17 years now since John died,” said Angela.
“It’s just incredible that our story is still being told, with the film, stage show and now the musical. We couldn’t have asked for anything more and it’s great because we’re still raising money.
“Gary is just lovely, the kind of guy you’d like to have as a son and he got the heart of our story and why we did it straight away.”
She added: “The songs he has written are fantastic and so emotional, I was trying not to cry. If anyone doesn’t walk out of The Grand humming and singing them then I won’t know why. And I’m so pleased it’s opening in Yorkshire, where it all started.”
Alongside Barlow was co-writer Tim Firth, who penned the screenplay for Calendar Girls as well as the subsequent stage play, which broke British theatrical records.
“I wanted the cast to meet the girls because part of this process is understanding the humour which is at the heart of this,” he said.
“I hope they like the story, I hope they like the songs but I think they love the fact that every show raises money for their charity.”
Tricia Stewart, the driving force behind the original calendar, said: “I can see this production going to Broadway, once it’s been to Leeds, Manchester and London. We’re always looking forward.”
Asked if they would ever consider taking off their clothes for another fundraising calendar, the ladies wouldn’t rule it out - although they wondered if there was still the demand.
“Never say never,” said Mrs Stewart, “but I think they would probably give us another £4m just to keep them on.”
Gary Barlow told The Yorkshire Post he was banned from seeing musicals while writing for The Girls. “Tim (Firth) said, don’t go out and watch a load of musicals, I want you to go and do what you do,” revealed the Take That frontman. “He would leave me alone for months and I would come in with a bunch of starts, melodies and ideas. I’ve had real freedom to express how I feel a scene should be.”
The calendar, film and stage show have raised £4m for charity Bloodwise, which funds research into leukaemia. It is hoped the musical can add another £1m.
• See Friday’s Yorkshire Post for an exclusive interview with Gary Barlow and Tim Firth on bringing The Girls to Yorkshire.