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Tim Firth and Gary Barlow bring the stage version of Calendar Girls to Leeds Grand Theatre

PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 November 2015

Gary Barlow, Tim Firth, Karen West, Vivien Parry, Harriet Thorpe, Shirley Jameson, Claire Moore, Sara Kestelman, Debbie Chazen, Claire Machin and Joanna Riding in The Girls - Photo: John Swannell

Gary Barlow, Tim Firth, Karen West, Vivien Parry, Harriet Thorpe, Shirley Jameson, Claire Moore, Sara Kestelman, Debbie Chazen, Claire Machin and Joanna Riding in The Girls - Photo: John Swannell

John Swannell

As a musical version of Calendar Girls premieres in Yorkshire this month, writer Tim Firth reveals all (as it were) to Tony Greenway

Ben Hunter, Tim Firth, Chloe May Jackson, Gary Barlow, Josh BensonBen Hunter, Tim Firth, Chloe May Jackson, Gary Barlow, Josh Benson

Look away now if you are of a prudish disposition because the following story contains naked ladies. And this time they’re singing and dancing.

Do you remember Rylstone & District Women’s Institute in North Yorkshire’s iconic charity calendar in the late 1990s? Well, Tim Firth, the award-winning playwright, TV and film scriptwriter, had a copy on his wall long before it became a world-wide phenomenon.

Years later, after all the fuss had died down, a film producer asked him to write a script about it. He did, and it ultimately became the international hit movie Calendar Girls, starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.

It turns out that the Olivier Award-winner, who wrote the play Neville’s Island as well as various TV series including Once Upon a Time in the North and All Quiet on the Preston Front, was the perfect person for the job.

Playwright and producer Tim FirthPlaywright and producer Tim Firth

‘It’s funny,’ he says. ‘I used to look at that calendar every day, never imagining it was a good idea for a movie. But I could relate to the story because it was very English and it had happened in a tiny Yorkshire village that I knew incredibly well.’

Tim was brought up in Cheshire (and still lives in the county), but his dad was from Doncaster and would take his family back to Yorkshire on a startlingly regular basis.

‘I spent every Easter and summer holiday of my early life in that village (Rylstone),’ says Tim. ‘Indeed, on one holiday I actually bought a copy of the calendar from one of the WI girls.’

The film became such a record-breaking success (it cost $10m and made $96m) that he adapted it into a hit play which opened in the West End and has constantly toured around the country and the world.

Now, Tim has teamed up with Take That star Gary Barlow to adapt the story into a stage musical, called The Girls, which receives its world premiere in Leeds this month. Coincidentally, the pair actually grew up in the same small town.

‘I met Gary when he was 16 and I was 21,’ he says. ‘It’s extraordinary to think that the perfect person for me to work with on this musical comes from the same small place that I do.’

Tim is quick to point out that The Girls isn’t the play with added songs; in fact, 90 per cent of the show is all-new material.

‘The producers asked me if I would adapt the play into a musical,’ he says. ‘But I couldn’t get my head around how – and why – I’d do it. But years ago, Gary had mooted the idea of us writing an album of songs for women of a certain age, and I began to wonder if these two things were linked.’

The pair wrote around 70 songs and whittled them down to 13 for the show, including a number called Yes, I’ve Had A Little Work Done.

A number of well-known actresses have appeared in the non-musical stage version of Calendar Girls, including Patricia Hodge, Sian Phillips and Jerry Hall. The inevitable nudity is always coyly tasteful, utilizing strategically placed flower arrangements, teapots and iced buns. It’s certainly not explicit, but the thought of disrobing can be enough to put some actresses off.

‘Appearing on stage in this story requires an act of bravery on the part of the performers,’ admits Tim. ‘The original girls from the WI freely admit the actresses face a much bigger challenge than they did because, when they shot the calendar, they were in their mate’s house.

‘In the theatre, it’s electric. On the very first night, I could feel the audience leaning forward in their seats.’

For the musical, Gary and Tim have assembled a dream cast of performers including Debbie Chazen from Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy and Sara Kestelman from Sam Mendes’ version of Cabaret.

They will inevitably be nervous at first but, as the run continues, Tim is confident that inhibitions will be shed along with the clothes.

‘They usually start off from a point of reserve, wanting to hide behind props, cupboards, settees and pianos,’ he says, drawing on his experience of the Calendar Girls play. ‘Ultimately, though, we have trouble getting them to keep their clothes on.’

The secret of any theatre production of this uplifting tale is, of course, to replicate the original WI photographs with poise and grace.

‘It was such a simple, witty, imaginative idea for a good cause,’ says Tim. ‘It debunked myths that people harboured about the Women’s Institute. And the photos were taken with such artistic care by Terry Logan — the husband of one of the girls — which is why it worked so well.’

Tim caught the writing bug at an early age and, in 1983, attended a course tutored by his hero Willy Russell, of Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine and Blood Brothers fame. Later, at Cambridge University, he wrote sketches for the Footlights and became great friends with Sam Mendes, who began to direct his plays, and later directed major movies like American Beauty and Skyfall, the UK’s highest-ever grossing film.

But there’s barely time for reminiscing as the musical madness of The Girls is about to take over his life.

‘I’m co-directing this time, so it’s a much more full-on process for me,’ says Tim. ‘In the run up to the premier of any show, it’s like you’re bobbing about in the open sea with a huge oil tanker coming towards you.

‘I’m a huge fan of musicals. I’m not an avowed lover of everything but, when they work, they are the best that theatre can be.’

The Girls is on at Leeds Grand Theatre from November 14th – December 12th. For tickets, call 0844 848 2700 or visit www.leedsgrandtheatre.com

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