Exclusive Interview with Gary Barlow and Tim Firth | Calendar Girls The Musical
by Karen Shaw
No matter where in the world you live, you will have no doubt heard about the Calendar Girls, a group of WI ladies from the Yorkshire Dales who appeared in a calendar in the nuddy to raise funds for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. The calendar was in memory of John Baker, the husband of Angela, a member of the WI. John passed away in July ‘98, and in the April of ‘99 the calendar was launched. The response was phenomenal, and they sold 88,000 in the UK alone, and to date they have raised almost £5million for Bloodwise, the UK’s specialist blood cancer charity.
The Calendar Girls became instant celebrities and it spawned a film, a stage play and a musical. Almost two decades after the initial unveiling, nestled in a Dales village and fully dressed they are preparing to take Calendar Girls: The Musical back on the road.
I love the nights when we turn up unannounced and we sit at the back
This musical comedy shows life in their Yorkshire village, how it happened, the effect on their families, and how a group of ordinary ladies achieved something extraordinary. The musical version of Calendar Girls written by Take That’s Gary Barlow and his writing partner Tim Firth, opened in Leeds in the autumn of 2015 to rave reviews, and later transferred to the Lowry in Salford and then to the West End where it ran for six months earning five-star reviews from critics. The new production, which will tour nearly every theatre in the British Isles between this August and next April is already breaking box office records, and tickets are selling like hot buns.
It’s Monday, for once it’s sunny and my destination, Burnsall village looks glorious bathed in sunshine. My usual jaunts to Burnsall involve a long walk followed by an afternoon cream tea but not today! I’ve left my wellies at home and donned my high heels as I’m meeting Gary and writer of Calendar Girls Tim in the Dales, almost 20 years to the date that the local WI ladies dropped their dresses to show us their buns!
Sleepy Burnsall is buzzing with press folk who have travelled far and wide for the opportunity to meet the brand-new cast of Calendar Girls: The Musical. The original calendar girls are also there, proudly wearing their signature sunflower brooches along with the actors who will be playing them including TV star Fern Britton and former Corrie favourite Denise Welch, and as I pour myself a coffee I say Hi-de-Hi to comedy legend Ruth Madoc.
After a constant stream of interviews, it’s time for lunch in the village hall and the opportunity to listen to a rendition of a couple of musical numbers by the new cast, followed by a press conference with Gary and Tim. I’m one of the lucky ones. After much perseverance, Northern Life were chosen to have a one to one with the writers after lunch, so no sooner had I gathered a plateful of food lovingly prepared by the WI ladies, I was called in to interview the lads, en route I shove half a sausage in mouth as I hurried into the room.
“Welcome to God’s own county,” is my greeting. My next question (in a relaxed manner) was meant to be, ‘do you consider yourselves honorary Yorkshire men?’ (the word honorary is easier to type but try saying it when you’re in a bear pit of press photographers and a multitude of well-spoken, pristine media types looking at you with bewildering stares) What I actually say is: “Do you consider yourself honourable men?” Fortunately for me the floor didn’t swallow me up and Gary kindly corrects me, he doesn’t seem to have an issue pronouncing words. I supposed it could have been worse, at least I didn’t address him as Barry Garlow!
Friends for over 25 years, these two award-winning writers grew up together in Frodsham. Tim has won the Olivier Award and UK Theatre Award for Best New Musical, and the British Comedy Awards Best Comedy Film for Calendar Girls and with Take That, Gary Barlow has written and co-written 14 number one singles, sold over 50 million records worldwide and is a six times Ivor Novello Award winner. I was curious to learn how these two lads decided to put their heads together to create Calendar Girls: The Musical…
“Tim came to me seven years ago, and to be honest it wasn’t on my list of ambitions to write a musical, everyone has always said to me, ‘don’t do a musical, it’s a nightmare!’ He made the process painless for me,” smiles Gary. “Very early on, we came to the village hall in Burnsall and met the girls, and it all made sense.
“When I first met them I didn’t realise how involved with the show they were, they come to every opening as you would I guess,” says Gary, “if it was my story and you were celebrating it in the way these shows do I’d want to be there as well, with their enthusiasm and passion, it’s lovely to have them around. We’ve got to remember where we are. We’re in a small village in the middle of nowhere and if you asked anybody, anywhere in the world who the calendar girls are, they’d know. They made a massive impact on the whole world and I just think it’s brilliant.”
“The first night we ever watched it, was at Leeds Grand and in the middle of the second act the audience were on the roof, cheering and laughing and crying,” says Tim, “and we looked at each other and had to remind ourselves how lucky we are that this is our job. Someone once described it brilliantly, saying, “I’m going to coin a new verb which is ‘craughing’,’ which is crying and laughing at the same time!” craughs Tim!
“I love the nights when we turn up unannounced and we sit at the back and watch the house and especially the last 25 minutes of this show, it’s just a riot,” grins Gary, “the audience are loving it… the cast are loving it.”
With the ongoing success of the musical, I wondered if the lads had any plans to create any more hit musicals.
“We’d love to! It’s great,” says Gary, “we’re like the new Everly Brothers, although not The Chuckle Brothers. How about the new Chas and Dave? There needs to be a new Chas and Dave!”
Gary, is not just a writing ‘whizz kid’ he’s also one of the country’s best performers, so I wondered if he had itchy feet and longed to be ‘treading the boards’ instead of watching from the audience…
“If I wasn’t still performing I may look and feel a bit envious that they are on the stage but I’m not an actor to start with. I couldn’t do what they do on a stage! I’m happy to stick to writing the music,” he grins.
While hard at work putting the finishing touches to the new tour, Gary has been delighting thousands of his fans with his solo tour – on which he also plays one of Calendar Girls’ standout songs, Dare. “I often perform them when I’m on tour. There is a life for these songs outside of the show.”
Gary has many ‘strings to his bow’ so I was intrigued to discover whether he preferred, performing or writing…
“It’s a tough one, I feel differently at different points of the year. I can’t answer that!”
And how does writing pop music differ to writing for a musical?
“It’s different,” says Gary, “because when you write pop music you’re writing how you feel on that day, on that month, with Calendar Girls the goal posts are much narrower. It’s a story, it’s a character. It’s a more methodical journey.”
When the lads reviewed the songs in the musical I was curious to learn if they ever got to the point where they felt they couldn’t tinker with them anymore…
“There are layers of tinkering. Tim has written a new script which is largely the old one but it’s tighter with more changes making pieces shorter. But when we get everyone in the room, there’s more tinkering and then when you get it on the stage, there’s another layer of tinkering. A musical is a moving beast!”
“We don’t know how to stop!” giggles Tim, “we’ve not found that place yet. We want to keep pushing to make it better and make the audience experience better, make the experience sharper and tighter as a show. The new set dictates how to write the show,” says Tim, “it’s more fluid, both musically and narratively, so again it’s coming from the fact this is the same show – people who have seen the show already will not wonder why we’ve lost or gained huge tracts of story… but it’s the same story told more tightly.