‘NAKED’ charity calendars are familiar. From soccer referees to farmers, and Ryanair cabin crew to fire fighters and Thai boxers, people all over Ireland are posing nude for charity. Middle-aged Yorkshire woman, Angela Baker, and her friends bared all in a Women’s Institute (WI) calendar a decade ago and spawned a bestselling film and the most successful play to tour the UK, which has grossed £21m.
After four years, the play will finish in 2012, before the amateur rights are released in September.
“I’ve seen the stage show about 20 times. It’s a story of friendship and of loss, but it’s a story that will make you smile, and you’ll go home feeling hopeful,” says Baker, 67.
After her husband, John Baker, was diagnosed with cancer (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) in 1998, Baker and her fellow members joked about overhauling the annual WI calendar, which usually depicted chocolate box scenes of the Yorkshire Dales.
“My friend nudged me at a WI meeting about doing a naked calendar, and we had a funny chat about it for a few minutes. But it was all talk. John laughed about it and said we’d never do it,” says Baker. When John Baker died five months after his diagnosis, the idea was raised again.
“When John died, my world came to an end. It was a funny thing to do to take our clothes off and make a calendar when your husband dies, but it was helpful. John wouldn’t have wanted me to sit in a corner and feel sorry for myself,” she says.
The ladies enlisted local artist Terry Logan to tastefully photograph them doing traditional WI activities, including baking, sewing and gardening — ‘naked’ save for strategically placed props including iced buns, plants or sieves to protect their modesty. Baker, as Miss February, posed with her back to the camera, playing the official WI anthem ‘Jerusalem’ on the piano.
“None of us knew what it was going to turn out like. If we had, we’d have been terrified. We didn’t think anyone except our friends and family would buy it. None of us had any beauty treatments before it and we just wore a bit of powder and lippy, and shared one string of pearls between us. If we’d known, we’d have been on a bit of a diet and made an effort,” says Baker.
On the day of the launch in the local pub, the ladies hoped to sell a few calendars to friends and family. “I woke up to hear us being talked about on the radio and I went running round to Tricia’s. By the time I’d gone to the pub where we were going to launch it, there were white news vans everywhere and satellite dishes,” says Baker.
By the end of the day, the alternative WI calendar had made national news, and had sold 1,000 calendars. That year, they sold 88,000 calendars, with profits donated to Bakers’ chosen charity, Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. “We sold double the Pirelli calendar, and I say well done older women,” says Baker.
Touchstone Pictures produced the film in 2003, and Calendar Girls, starring Dame Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, became a box-office success. Much of the film was shot around Yorkshire, and some of the WI ladies played cameo roles.
“I loved the film and we were really involved in the script. They gave us a caravan with a star on the front that said ‘The Real Calendar Girls’,” says Baker.
Both film and stage show portrayed the sunflower, the motif of the calendar girls. “When John was in hospital, he had lots of cards from friends and family. One day, we noticed how many sunflowers were on the cards. It’s such a happy flower,” says Baker. She and her family gave packets of sunflower seeds to their friends, and John focused on getting well enough to see the sunflowers in bloom. “John died in July and he didn’t see the sunflowers bloom. But everywhere I went, I saw the sunflowers. It’s such a happy flower, and it became our flower,” says Baker.
The stage show began in 2009 and has starred a plethora of celebrities, including Lynda Bellingham, Gaynor Faye, Deena Payne (Viv Hope in Emmerdale), and Lisa Reilly (Mandy Dingle in Emmerdale). The shows’ producers and author have donated £500,000 of profits to Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. After nine calendars and a range of merchandise, the original calendar girls have raised £3m to help beat blood cancers. “I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved and John will be smiling at us. I know our money is going towards research and that, for me, is a fantastic thing. We might not see a cure in our lifetime, but we might have played a part in it,” she says.
Baker, who has since remarried, still lives in Yorkshire and attends regular WI meetings. “We don’t sit there knitting and embroidering and flower-arranging all the time. It’s a friendship group. I couldn’t have done any of this without those ladies,” she says.
* Calendar Girls, The Farewell Tour is on in Dublin’s Grand Canal Theatre from Monday, Feb 27 to Saturday, Mar 3. Tickets from €20 at Ticketmaster 0818 719 377; www.grandcanaltheatre.ie.