The Women of ”Calendar Girls”

How many women in their 40s and 50s can say that they took on Britney Spears…and sold more calendars? Angela Baker and Tricia Stewart can, and quite rightly, they aren’t shy to mention it. How did they do it? That’s what “Calendar Girls,” the upcoming English film that is soon to be released in the U.S., is all about.

“Everyone in Britain is familiar with the story,” says two-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley in the “Harry Potter” series). Director Nigel Cole confirms that he “immediately knew it would be a great film, but did nothing about it.” That is, until the women who lived the story in real life chose producers Nick Barton and Suzanne Mackie to tell their tale on film. The producers tabbed Cole (“Saving Grace”) to helm, and soon enough, not only was Walters on board, but a whole ensemble of respected British actresses, including no less than Dame Helen Mirren as Walters’ co-star.

What made the project so attractive to these stars? Well, it’s pretty simple… as Cole said, the movie represents “a huge part of society that’s almost completely ignored in film.” Let me shed a little more light on the story… expose it, if you will. Three years ago, Angela Baker and Tricia Stewart were members of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute. The Women’s Institute (WI) is known for its staid image. It’s a place for the wives to go to drink tea, sing “Jerusalem,” and listen to lectures on domestic topics. The Rylstone WI traditionally collected funds by selling calendars featuring local scenes and other somewhat uninspiring photos. When Angela’s husband John passed away from leukemia, she was determined to raise a serious amount of money to benefit hospitals and leukemia research. Tricia had a unique concept: Why not make a calendar that shows the members of the WI engaging in the activities traditionally associated with the group, like baking and flower arranging…and not wearing any clothes?

A racy idea…and as it turned out, a brilliant one. 3,000 copies of the calendar were sold on the very first day. That became 88,000 nationwide with startling rapidity. And the product was very successfully exported to America, moving 250,000 copies and beating out Ms. Spears.

Cole relates that in real life, there was remarkably little opposition to the potentially scandalous concept. “Everyone thought it was a great idea.” If there was any concern, it wasn’t a moral objection, but rather, concern for the “proper image” of the WI. However, in the film, “Annie” and “Chris” (the characters representing Baker and Stewart, respectively) meet with significant resistance, culminating with a dramatic speech made by “Chris” (Mirren) to the WI’s governing council.Cole will freely admit that “Calendar Girls” is not a documentary. “It’s 75% of the true story,” he estimates. That number might be a little generous. Baker and Stewart add that another one of the movie’s big scenes — a confrontation between “Annie” and “Chris” in Los Angeles — didn’t go down quite how the screenplay has it. “We never had an argument like that, but it’s a powerful scene,” they say. The film also depicts the British tabloids airing Stewart’s dirty laundry in public. Tricia? “Fictitious.” How about the rest of her family as the film depicts it? Her embarrassed teenage son, or the flower business run by her husband? “Fictitious.” Additionally, about half of the original Girls did not want to be included in the movie, and so many of the characters represent composites.

But of course, it’s all done in the interest of creating a more compelling movie, and the Girls say they love the film. Baker and Stewart say that becoming celebrities hasn’t made much difference in their lives. “We’re nothing special at home.” Walters, who met extensively with Baker and the other Girls before filming began (“it was as if the girls knew Julie forever,” Baker enthuses), doesn’t necessarily share their self-assessment. “They love the fame!” But Walters surely wouldn’t dispute castmate Penelope Wilton (“Iris”) when she says that ultimately, “the real reason they did the calendar” — to honor John Baker — “has stayed with them throughout.”

Another thing about which everyone involved can agree is that “Calendar Girls” is not the story of British women “getting their groove back.” “We had no deep sociological goal [in creating the calendar]. We did it because it was against the image of the WI. It didn’t make us feel more liberated and free…Some of us hate it, but we do it for John,” Stewart says. “It’s about friendship, community, and a sense of self, more than about their relationship to their bodies,” Walters concurs when discussing the script. Walters relates an anecdote that occurred after the calendar was released. British prime minister Tony Blair made a patronizing speech towards a Women’s Institute delegation…and the assembled members sarcastically began “slow-clapping” in the middle of it. This breach of etiquette was nearly as much at odds with the WI’s image as nude photography, and many felt such assertiveness might not have been demonstrated in the pre-calendar era. Baker and Stewart enthusiastically endorse the WI, and point out that there has been an increase in the organization’s membership since the calendar’s release.

Walters says that, even though the story was universally well-known in her home country, the requirement of on-screen nudity still had the power to surprise. “Women in their 50s are almost invisible [in movies] in terms of sexuality… My daughter thought I was joking when I told her.” She doesn’t paint a giddy picture of the ensemble’s attitude. “We were all apprehensive of the nudity up to a point. We were glad when it was over; it was a terrible thing hanging over us.” As in the original photographs, the movie sets are carefully arranged to cover up the naughty bits. If you’re not quite sure what that would look like, think “Austin Powers”… or you can pick up the newest version of the calendar, where Tricia is Miss August (making pickles) and Angela is Miss December (icing a cake). Proceeds go to the Leukemia Research Fund.