This article appeared in the Evening
A few years ago my best friend's
mother took off with her sister on a Medieval-style pilgrimage
across mainland Europe to see Cliff Richard in concert. In my
desk diary I wrote, '50-year-old-version of Thelma and Louise'.
What appealed to me was the epic nature of the venture, their
awareness of its slight insanity and, hence, a sense of reawakenes
schoolgirl complicity. '50-year-old Thelma and Louise' remained
a great idea for several years, but eventually I forgot about
The tweed-fragranced time bomb
lurking behind this idea was that both women were members of
the Women's Institute, Rather like MI5, the WI has always been
one of those presences that has always been part of my life;
never overt but always close, always watching. My mum was a member
and my gran firmly enough entrenched to have visited the queen
on its behalf.
Its presence made itself felt
more when I was asked by Harbour Pictures to begin work on a
film about those WI ladies who had posed for a nude calendar.
I realised with Hitchcockian
crawling horror that not only had the said calendar been hanging
in my house the previous year, but that I'd bought it from one
of the actual naked ladies at Rylstone in North Yorkshire. And
I had no less than five paintings in my house from the gallery
run by Terry Logan who took all the calendar girl photographs.
So where did I start? Really,
when describing the WI, one should avoid strapping on adjectives
like 'tweed-fragranced' which lazily perpetuates the image of
quaint anachronism. True, elements of the WI are exactly that,
but all the members are in on the joke.
In the film, Chris Harper,
the character played by Helen Mirren, says early on that she
only joined the WI to keep her mum happy but by the time her
mother died she herself was terminally esconced. My mother gave
the same reason, and, like Chris, kept on going. For her, part
of the joy was returning home every week to say, 'You will never
guess what the speech was about this week.'.
My opening scene was a quickfire
snapshot of various such speeches - and the original girls voiced
concern. 'Maybe' they said at our first powow in Bolton Abbey,
'a speech on the history of broccoli is pushing it a bit. Then
someone pointed out that the week's talk at their own WI had
been on the history of the tea towel. The subsequent recap of
former talks produced titles of speeches that I would never have
dared feature - althoughthe history of tea towels did make it
into the final scene in a late rewrite.
For me, the greatest anomaly
about the organisation is the word 'Institute'. the resonance
of the word is of a place one enters not particularly happily,
nor indeed of one's own free will. It seems to sit more comfortably
alongside Chartered Surveyors' or The Criminally Insane than
it does Women.
My grandmother's own village
meetings were held in a place called The Milner Institute, which
I always imagined to have been handed down to the community by
amustachioed benefactor to distract the local youths from sex.
Institute is pungent with that
late-Victorian prudishness, propriety, soundness-of-mind, edification
and sexless fun. None of which would interest the WI members
I know. After a century of change, the original ethos of the
WI is still regarded by its ladies - and protected - with wry
Abuse that understanding at
your peril; Tony Blair, when he 'gate-crashed' their National
Conference in 2000, was summarily heckled and slow-hand-clapped.
These are women, who in the larger part will be the driving force
behind families, relationships, businesses - they are not going
to trudge off institutionally to meetings if there is nothing
in it for them.
What they get from it is laughter.
Laughter at the codes; laughter at the events; laughter at, and
with, each other in the nexus of lives it constitutes. The WI
may once have prospered as a reaction to the preponderance of
all-male societies, but now it constitutes less a female working-men's-club
than a middle aged youth club.
The production of the calendar
is proof positive of the liberalisatiom of the Institute. It
is hard to imagine the original Canadian WI so readily embracing
nudity in 1897, nor their first British counterparts in 1915.
In fact, the only time I ran up against the WI authroities in
the script was in the third draft, when I suggested that the
Central Commitee had not been supportive.
There was one other sticky
moment. Aware of a deliberate script error - I had included butter-cream
in the ingredients for a Victoria sponge - I was hoping to slip
it through on the grounds of the musical quality within the line.
Instead, I was hauled up on stage during filming and received
pretty much the same treatment afforded the Prime Minister.
Of course support for the calendar
was not universal. Of course some women objected; but I realised
that to imply that an organisation so defined by laughter would
frown at a suggestion of such obvious wit just didn't ring true.
This movie was never going
to be about how oppposition affected the calendar's progress;
but conversely, about how the speed of the calendar's progress
affected the women. It was when rereading the shooting script
for the final time that I realised what my structure had turned
the film into: it is an epic venture undertaken by two women
aware of the intrinsic insanity, but driven on by a reawakened
sense of schoolgirl complicity.
It has been described as a
sort of female Full Monty but, if anything, it's a middle-aged
Thelma and Louise.