A TALE that gained international acclaim, celebrating women and their ability to triumph in adversity, has come full circle as the Calendar Girls story returns to Wharfedale having travelled the world as a calendar, film, play and finally, a Gary Barlow musical.

Fresh from the professional circuit, Calendar Girls: The Musical is coming home, with Grassington Players staging the first amateur production of the show later this month.

The original Calendar Girls have raised in excess of £5 million for blood cancer research since their calendar was conceived in 1999, in honour of Yorkshire Dales national park officer, John Baker.

When Angela Baker lost her husband to non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1998, her fellow members of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute rallied round.

Her close friend and neighbour Tricia Stewart came up with the idea of a fundraising calendar with a difference to celebrate John’s love of life.

Lynda Logan’s artist and photographer husband, Terry Logan was on hand to turn the concept into reality.

Photographed at the Logan’s cottage in Threshfield, each of the middle-aged women was depicted tantalisingly naked yet discretely and tastefully hidden by the props of various traditional WI-themed activities from jam-making to flower arranging.

The soft sepia shots were all characterised by a colourful yellow sunflower and witty caption. The resulting ‘Alternative WI Calendar’ was a revelation showing beauty does not begin and end with youth.

The original fundraising target for the subtly cheeky calendar was £5000. It actually raised more than £300,000 before the year was over, as the story hit the national press and the world’s spotlight turned upon the ladies of the Rylstone WI.

In 2003 with backing from Disney, Harbour Pictures released the film Calendar Girls, featuring a star-studded cast headed by Helen Mirren and Julie Walters and with a dash of artistic license embellishing the story.

Among the extras appearing the film were some of the original girls and several members of Grassington Players.

The associated fundraising went to a whole new level, with six of the ‘real’ girls, now stars in their own right. Always smartly attired in black and displaying their distinctive sunflower emblem they tirelessly attended functions far and wide to support the charity - including flying to the United States to appear on Jay Leno’s chat show.

In 2209, the stage play, was released in the West End with another spin on the story by the same script writer, Tim Firth.

To mark the tenth anniversary of the original, Terry and the girls produced a new calendar in 2010 featuring the remaining fundraising ladies.

In 2012, Grassington Players staged the amateur world premiere of the play to much acclaim. It then went on to be performed more than any other play by amateur dramatic societies across the world, with more than 500 productions, all raising funds for the charity.

Eventually, thinking it was all over, the charity staged a glamorous tribute event at London’s Albert Hall to thank the ‘real girls’ as they officially retired from the fundraising work that had dominated their lives for 12 years.

But then, when they had barely had time to hang up their sunflowers, Tim Firth had a chat with his old school pal, Gary Barlow of Take That, and suddenly it was very far from all over.

Bringing the story to life again, Barlow and Firth brought their cast and stage set to Burnsall village hall in March 2015 to perform a pilot version of a new musical to an invited audience.

Afterwards those guests – including the original girls and several Grassington Players members - were asked to provide feedback on their favourite songs to help shape the final professional show.

‘The Girls’ opened at Leeds Grand in 2015, went on to the West End in 2017 and was then adapted for touring the provinces as Calendar Girls: The Musical.

It takes the best of the play script and tops it off with a host of entertaining songs administered with a good dose of Yorkshire grit and wit. It also introduces new characters in the form of teenage children with angst to add depth to the story.

The result is a multi-layered piece that manages to interweave themes with resonance for everyone; self-doubt, ageing, terminal illness, grief, friendship and how community strength and love shines through.

With the first license issued for amateur performing rights going again to Grassington Players, it neatly closes the circle as the Calendar Girls story ‘comes of age’ 21 years on from the 2000 calendar.

Grassington Players’ links to the original girls go back a lot further. Beryl Bamforth, Miss January, joined the amateur dramatic society in 1970, and is now its longest serving member.

John and Angela Baker were former members and Beryl fondly recalls directing Angela in There Goes the Bride, a production they took to a Drama Festival, where she was “dressed as a dolly bird”. You could say the stage was set for their future exploits.

Beryl was 65 and the oldest of the original girls when the 2000 calendar was made. Her ‘am dram’ confidence meant she was not in the least bit fazed. Her equivalent character, Jessie, in the fictional adaption, will be played in the forthcoming show by Jennifer Scott, who at 77 years old, is even older.She also played the character nine years ago in the Grassington Players production of the play.

Alongside a few new faces and professional directorial talent drafted in for this finale in the form of Anita Adams and Mike Gilroy, the cast of 19 features seven of the same members from that production. Among them, Beryl’s son Mark Bamforth plays Rod and his partner Jane Ellison-Bates reprises the role of Annie, the fictional character representing Angela Baker.

The coronavirus has challenged the Grassington production, as it has countless others.

Originally, rehearsals were underway for performance in May 2020. Eventually, with the show rescheduled for this September, rehearsals were only able to restart in July, with a few cast and crew adjustments due to changes in availability. Initially working on Zoom and then only permitted to meet in groups of just six, it was a challenging start.

Beryl Bamforth is confident that Grassington Players will do the musical justice, as they did the play, with a level of sincerity that comes from the closeness of the Players to the original girls.

“Many amateur drama groups don’t necessarily have singers and probably wouldn’t tackle this difficult show, but we are very fortunate that we do have singing talent in the company,” she said.

There is added poignancy and irony in that cancer has impacted on the production.

Cast member Paula Vickers, originally reprising a leading role, had to drop out of rehearsals early last year to undergo treatment for throat cancer. Happily, 18 months on she has recovered sufficiently to drop into the role of another of ‘the girls’.

Tragically, however, the original set designer Andrew Jackson died of lung cancer in March. The retired GP had also been John Baker’s doctor.

During rehearsals, cast member Lottie Cuerden (playing wayward teen, Jenny) lost her mother, Bev Cuerden; another Grassington Players member who had fought the disease for four years. 

Penny Hart-Woods, who plays the 'Helen Mirren' role in the production, recently underwent treatment for breast cancer, so to be baring all now is particularly brave. 

The cancer charity linked with the Calendar Girls has gone through almost as many iterations as the story; Leukaemia Research became Bloodwise and has recently evolved into Blood Cancer UK.

All ticket sale profits from the gala opening night will go to the charity, along with a percentage from the other performances and £1 on every bottle of the associated Liquid Yorkshire Gin sold.

The show is being sponsored by broadband supplier Boundless Networks.

Calendar Girls: The Musical will be staged at Grassington Devonshire Institute from September 25 to October 2.

Tickets are available online from https://grassingtonplayers.com/tickets or The Grassington Hub office on 01756 7522