Twenty years ago, the members of a small Yorkshire Women’s Institute produced a nude calendar that attracted global attention - and raised a lot of money for leukaemia research.
In fact, to date, the women of Rylstone WI have generated more than £5m for research. Which is quite something when you consider they intended only to raise enough to buy a sofa for a hospital waiting room.
Not just that but their story has captured the imagination of millions – and spawned a slew of copycat calendars which have also helped raise money for a myriad of good causes.
Thanks to Wirral-born writer Tim Firth, it’s also a story that proved a big hit on the big screen (the 2003 film boasting a starry cast including Julie Walters, Helen Mirren and Celia Imrie among others) and then later on stage in the successful play of the same name that he penned and was first premiered 10 years ago.
In 2015, Firth teamed up with Frodsham neighbour Gary Barlow to turn the play in to a musical, which started life under the title The Girls.
And now their show, bearing the original Calendar Girls moniker, is back and on tour – and playing the Liverpool Empire this week.
The cast includes presenter and best-selling novelist Fern Britton, although she cheerfully admits she almost missed out, initially telling her agent that on instinct it wasn’t for her.
“And then came the call saying Gary Barlow would like to have a cup of coffee and a chat with me!” she smiles. “Suddenly I found myself in a room reading the script with Gary, Tim Firth, the producers and the casting director. And boy am I glad they persisted!
“Never was I happier to be wrong about something.
“Some people don’t like musicals because of all the bursting into song, but with this you hardly know that a song has started until it’s halfway through. You are totally pulled along by your earholes and the songs really advance the story.
“Tim Firth is a god! He wrote the play, the movie and the musical and he’s like a Yorkshire Stephen Sondheim with the lyrics. As for Gary, he has written some incredible songs.”
It’s now almost two decades since the original Calendar Girls posed for their ground-breaking photos, and 15 since the film was a British cinematic sensation.
Loose Women’s Denise Welch ponders on why the story, in various incarnations, has endured.
“It’s about friendship and community and I think we all relate to that,” she says. “Celia, my character, has been off as an air hostess and has always been looking for something more. When she comes back, she realises that it was already there.
"As we get older, we all realise that.”
The Calendar Girls take a bow with Tim Firth and Gary Barlow. Photo by Matt Crockett
“This is an incredibly human story,” Britton adds. “Life is all about loss, love, making a mess, making mistakes, clearing it up and atoning. It is a terribly hackneyed phrase, but our show is life affirming.”
Having already raised huge amounts of money through merchandise and bucket collections at each performance, the charity Bloodwise (formerly Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research) will continue to benefit from the production – a fact of which the ladies are extremely proud.
“Perhaps nobody knew how much this man John meant to them until he was suddenly no longer there?” suggests Fern. “My mum died recently and only today did I acknowledge that my landscape has changed. It can be hard to make sense of.”
Calendar Girls - The Musical is at the Liverpool Empire from November 27 to December 1. Tickets from the website HERE