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Calendar Girls

Chrissie's M&S cake

Chrissie gets an idea

Gilrs shout off, off, off to Chrissie

The film Calendar Girls







Tim Firth Films title graphic

This article appeared in the Evening Standard ....

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 it.

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 affection.

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.