Why I enjoyed the tweedy-knickered Leavers showing their front bottoms

Hilary Fannin: Laughs, a satisfying cry, ‘Calendar Girls’ was nakedly charming

Tim Firth and Gary Barlow with the cast of ‘Calendar Girls’ including Rebecca Storm. Fern Britton, Sara Crowe, Denise Welch,, Ruth Madoc, Karen Dunbar and Anna Jane Casey

Tim Firth and Gary Barlow with the cast of ‘Calendar Girls’ including Rebecca Storm. Fern Britton, Sara Crowe, Denise Welch,, Ruth Madoc, Karen Dunbar and Anna Jane Casey

 

Love is in the air, eh? Cupid’s spent arrows are littering my kitchen floor and I’m veritably drowning in scented envelopes from the avalanche of Valentine’s cards that thundered through my letterbox yesterday. Hell, I could barely make it down the stairs for the slew of rose petals strewn over the balding carpet. 

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” I said, on waking, to the cat, who in her mangy dotage has taken to sleeping stretched out on the middle of the bed like a pungent Cleopatra. She opened her mouth in a silent miaow; her flashing incisors didn’t look too romantic.

I did go out on a date recently actually – well, sort of – with my friend Jayne. We went to the musical Calendar Girls in Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. The production, written by Tim Firth and with music by Gary Barlow, is based (as I’m sure you know) on the true story of a bunch of Yorkshire women, all members of the local Women’s Institute, who, in a game attempt to imitate a Pirelli calendar, got their kit off to raise money for research into leukaemia, of which one of their husbands had died. 

This story of how a bunch of dames from the dales attracted global attention for having the chutzpah to pose naked behind their sheet music, iced cupcakes, begonias and prizewinning tubers, has been entertaining punters for two decades now. The tale of their demure derring-do is as familiar as Yorkshire pudding, not that that was going to dampen the audience’s spirits on the first night of the Dublin run.

Nobody could’ve been more surprised than I was then to find myself welling up

Given that I tend to favour moody films featuring misfits with bruised eyelids, and solemn plays about drink and despair, I sort of assumed I wouldn’t like Calendar Girls. Also, having never owned a Take That album, the promise of a night drenched in Barry Garlow’s music wasn’t exactly ringing my bell.

Strike a chord

Nobody could’ve been more surprised than I was then to find myself welling up during the production while a nice woman on stage sang a very, very long song about her husband’s untimely death. There was a line in the song that went something like “Now that you’re gone, who am I going to go to Tesco with of a Friday, eh?”, which seemed to strike a chord not just with me but with the almost entirely middle-aged, almost entirely female audience. Our collective sympathy fell over the auditorium like a light spring rain, dropping on the pate of a lone man who happened to be sitting in front of us, scrolling through the football scores. He put his phone away. 

Throughout, my mate Jayne, a woman well versed in the vagaries of life, laughed in all the right places and sighed in all the right places and was graciously willing to be entertained by the musical tale of village life featuring balding, uxorious men and their busily industrious wives whose main responsibility seemed to be scouring the tea urn. She listened patiently when, during the interval, I tried to make a couple of arch points about Brexit and the entire fictional village probably being a bunch of tweedy-knickered Leavers, but really I was barking up my own apple-blossom bower. 

The piece, an unashamedly sentimental story of strait-laced middle-class ladies, their nipples and knitting and willingness to risk revealing their “front bottoms” for a right good cause, was a storming success with the Irish audience on that first night.

 “I loved it,” Jayne said afterwards, queuing up in the car park to validate her parking ticket, while strains of Barlow’s anthemic One More Day in Yorkshire were clearly audible from the women around us. 

Jayne’s elderly car was reluctant to start, and when it did it cut out again. We were almost alone in the emptying fluorescent car park. I looked out of the car window at the bleak basement walls.

That musical is actually a paean to marriage, I thought, to ordinary, everyday partnership, to shared duvets and tolerated idiosyncrasies; it isn’t about a calendar. It’s a story of love and endurance, grief and survival. No wonder the production has been doing the rounds for aeons.

Jayne was fiddling with the electrics. 

“Would you have liked a husband?” I asked her. 

“A husband to fix the car?”

“No, just a husband husband. You know, marriage. A pass-the-sugar husband. A have-you-seen-my-socks husband.” 

“Couldn’t think of anything worse,” she cheerfully replied. “But I wouldn’t say no to a new carburettor.” 

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