Exposed: Interview with the Calendar Girls

Exposed: Interview with the Calendar Girls

Currently starring in Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s hit musical Calendar Girls, actress Lesley Joseph talks telly, panto and what her first thought upon waking is…  

What is Calendar Girl’s broad appeal? 

I always say that it might not be a show for everybody, but I do think it will be for most people. Life has a way of catching you short and fundamentally this is an extraordinary story. A lot of people who come have recovered from cancer or lost people to cancer, so they identify with it. The musical also expands the characters – in the film and the play you never really got to know the husbands and the children. It is also very uplifting.

Are audiences vocal in their appreciation?

We get brilliant audiences, but the further north you go the more vocal and uninhibited they are in showing that they are having a good time. 

How do you cope with being naked on stage? 

It is very cleverly done, but God help the audience if my knitting runs!

Which do you prefer doing: theatre or television?

I absolutely adore doing television, but I do love working with a live audience and theatre is probably my first love. 

You are regularly in pantomime. What induces you to be involved in such seasonal chaos? 

I love it! Panto is an art and not nearly as easy as it looks. I recently saw a friend of mine, Allan Stewart, doing his one-man-show in London and I was completely blown away by his talent and versatility. He can sing, dance and act and he knows how to drive a story and to pull the audience’s strings. You need that mix of skills for panto. 

What is ‘down time’ for you?

Being at home, seeing friends and just living an ordinary life. I do yoga twice a week and work out as much as I can. On tour with Calendar Girls Friday is usually a day with only an evening show, so that is a day for shopping, tea rooms and catching up with friends around the country. 

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to act?

Always have something else that you can do and don’t go near it unless you really want to act. It’s the most overcrowded business and it is tougher than ever before. You’ll suffer rejection – you go up for thirty commercials and you might get pencilled for one – so you need to toughen up. And I never read reviews. You can have ten that say you’re amazing and one that says ‘what the Hell was she doing?’ and it will be that one that sticks in your mind. 

You recently finished a West End run in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein; you’re doing Calendar Girls, then going into Annie and panto looms at the end of the year. Do you enjoy being so busy?

Yes, but I still wake up every day thinking I’ll never work again. But that’s every actor’s life. 

Lisa Maxwell talks about getting her kit off in front of thousands of people, favourite musicals and how getting older sees her getting up early…

We know you from Loose Women, The Bill and The Lisa Maxwell Show, but you started out as a child performer, didn’t you?

Yes. I was in the original London cast of Annie aged 14. I love singing – it gives me so much joy. Some of the songs in Calendar Girls are so beautiful that I cry just reading the lyrics on the page. Thank God I’m the one singing about having big comedy knockers!

What are your favourite musicals? 

Oh goodness! All of them – I love musicals! But songs from Gypsy and Wicked! are favourites. Oh, and I love La La Land, Rent and Book of Mormon, which is so irreverent and naughty but so, so clever. Then there are all the old songs and musicals and I love them too!

Do you get nervous about stripping off for Calendar Girls?

Yes, it’s a very strange feeling! But it is such a fabulous show and all the girls are very supportive. What is being celebrated here is real women who are totally normal and who come together to do something phenomenal.

What appealed to you about doing Calendar Girls?

Everything! It’s a dream job. The songs are beautiful; Gary’s music is wonderful and Tim’s lyric’s and script are incredibly brilliant. I’d have to be really rubbish to cock it up because it’s all there on the page. It’s a dream job; being on the road with other women the same age and with a great show, going to lovely theatres and raising money for Bloodwise. It’s a win-win. I am absolutely chuffed to be part of the Calendar Girls. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever get tired of it. 

Are you a sightseer when you are on tour?

I didn’t tour for years because I wanted to be at home for my daughter, but when I toured in my youth I used to stay up late and get up late, so I didn’t do much exploring. Now I’m older I like to get up early when I’m on tour and find out a bit about wherever I am.

The audiences are always good for the show. Does having a fantastic response make a difference if you’re having a bad day?

Absolutely it does. You can be run ragged and shattered but then you get a standing ovation and it just lifts you.

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth talk about collaborating, what gives their Calendar Girls such universal appeal and why naked badminton is a no-no…

It is the story that keeps on giving. From staging a nude calendar to raising funds for their local hospital, the ladies of a Yorkshire branch of the Women’s Institute became international superstars. Twenty years ago Tim Firth told their story in his hit screenplay. Still people couldn’t get enough of this innately British tale, so Firth penned the equally acclaimed stage play.  More recently, collaborating with old school friend Gary Barlow, the musical incarnation launched, with many calling it the best adaptation yet. Consistently selling out after more than a year on the road, this funny, profoundly moving and life-affirming tale continues to resonate. Did Tim ever dream that the story would have such staying power when he sat down to write the film two decades ago?

“I wrote the first scene on the morning of 9/11, so I can always place the date I began,” he says quietly.  

“I went down to London to write. I put the telly on at about quarter to one, and then of course I never turned it off again. But by then I had written the first scene of the film.

“Like all things that you don’t plan it had its own plan. What was hidden in the story of this calendar was something far greater; its most core constituent is the combatting of grief through comedy and that never goes away. That is why it has had the longevity that it has. The story applies to many more counties than Yorkshire and many more people than just the WI. It has a far wider canvas than just those coping with an illness. It is universal and that is the whole point of it; the pain of loss being defeated with wit.”

Growing up in the same Cheshire village, Gary and Tim have been buddies since childhood. While Gary has written and co-written 14 number one singles, selling over 50 million records worldwide and notching up no less than six Ivor Novello Awards, Tim has won the Olivier Award and UK Theatre Award for Best New Musical and also the British Comedy Awards Best Comedy Film for Calendar Girls.

Having already seen his mate’s film and stage play versions of Calendar Girls, by the time Gary came on board to compose the score for the musical he had already subconsciously started the soundtrack in his head.

“I heard it straight away,” he admits. “When we started working Tim would give me a couple of pages of lyrics and then I’d come back with mini albums of songs. He would then, very cleverly, take a verse from one song and put it with the chorus of another. I’d get them back as structures and then maybe write new pieces. He gave me the freedom to be me,” explains Gary, who still marvels at the courage of the original pin-up girls of the title.

 “The bravery of these women in the face of adversity is at the heart of it all. That’s the charm and it’s what people relate to.” 

And with each new cast member who joins their happy band, Gary admits to being delighted by the quality of the talent.

“David and Dafydd [producers David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers] put amazing casts together,” he tells me. 

“The difference with Calendar Girls is that we now have people coming back from the play into the musical but playing different parts,” adds Tim. 

“There is no other show where that can happen to the same degree. For instance, Lesley [Birds of a Feather’s Lesley Joseph] was in the play as Chris. She’s back in the musical playing Jessie this time.”

With busy careers and several projects on the go at any given time, both chaps still make time to catch up with the production on tour.  

“We have been keeping an eye on The Band [the Take That musical the pair worked on with the rest of the Take That boys] at the same time over the past year, so time has been slightly split. But we keep in contact with the cast and we’ll definitely be going to see the new WI!” vows Tim, as Gary echoes his agreement. 

Having seen the production with at least two different casts I observe that one thing that never changes is the audience reaction at the curtain call, which always includes thunderous applause and is rarely anything but a standing affair. 

“They are certainly always in the same place at the end of it,” Tim concedes “That phenomenal response has always been consistent.”

The calendar itself comprised a genius set of photographs of ladies of the WI doing very traditional WI activities such as jam making, knitting and playing the piano. While Gary wanders off in search of a cup of tea, I ask Tim how he might pose for such a calendar – what passions does he have that could be translated into ‘Mr July’ type of posed shot? 

“I’d have to hide behind a laptop,” he laughs. 

“Apart from writing and music the only other things I do regularly are running and badminton. Neither lends itself to nudity,” he tells me firmly, batting aside my accusation that he’s a spoilsport.

Steering the conversation back on to less blush-inducing territory, Tim pays tribute to Gary’s music, which he credits with accelerating and developing the story.

“The songs are seamless; they lift you up like a magic carpet,” he says, adding that working with his old pal means that there is little slog involved. 

“It feels effortless, but then we have the same work ethic and we’re from the same stock.” 

Returning from chatting with the cast, Gary plonks himself back down on the sofa. 

“I am really looking forward to taking Calendar Girls back on the road and to new audiences. I think it’s going to be amazing” he says, his smile as wide as the Yorkshire Dales. 

I doubt he’s wrong. In fact, if he is then I’ll eat my hat. Or to quote one of Tim’s famous lines: “I’ll run round Skipton market naked, smeared in plum jam, wearing nothing but a knitted tea cosy on me head and singing Jerusalem.”

Calendar Girls The Musical comes to The Bristol Hippodrome from the 9th-20th of July, purchase tickets here.

Vicky Edwards