NO-ONE expected them to dress up for their coming-of-age party. In fact, the guests may have wondered if they would be dressed at all.
Exactly 18 years after they revealed themselves to a surprised, and, as it turned out, excited world, Yorkshire’s Calendar Girls were back where it had all begun, at a village hall in the Dales.
This time it was Burnsall, not Cracoe, and there were fewer TV trucks outside. But the fascination was undimmed.
The ladies of the Rylstone Women’s Institute, who in the closing months of the last century had posed nude for an “alternative” calendar, had been called there to launch another fund-raising drive. But principally, this was a day for reminiscence.
It had been Sarah Kennedy on Radio 2, who, on the morning on April 12, 1999, had signalled that the sight of 12 women of a certain age, posing behind teapots and sticky buns, were about to become the pin-ups for which middle England had been waiting.
“We heard her and then Terry Wogan talking about us, and when I looked out of the window, the car park was full of white vans with satellite dishes on top,” said Angela Baker, that year’s Miss February.
It had been the loss of her husband, John, to leukaemia, that had been the spur for what had at first seemed like little more than a jolly wheeze.
“We didn’t think anyone would turn up, just our family and a few neighbours,” she said. “But by the end of the day we had been on the lunchtime news, then the national news and we just thought, ‘Good heavens, what have we started?’”
Her friend, Tricia Stewart, had dreamed up the idea, before Mr Baker’s death. “I thought it would be different to the traditional calendar - you know, hills and sheep and letterboxes,” she said.
“But I did think we’d be doing it while John was getting better.”
Mrs Stewart asked the WI for permission to use the organisation’s name on the calendar, and thinks they agreed only because they thought no-one outside the Dales would ever see it.
“Without the WI name, it wouldn’t have worked,” she said. “And it wouldn’t have worked now, because with social media everyone would have seen everything in an instant. Back then, they had to wait for the post.”
The Royal Mail started to shift the calendars by the thousand, and with the play, film and musical that followed, donations and royalties have now reached £4m.
“I thought it would last three weeks,” Mrs Stewart said. “I thought we’d get in The Yorkshire Post, on Calendar and maybe Richard and Judy, and that would be it.”
The women’s charity from the start has been the Leukaemia Research Fund, now known as Bloodwise, which funds research into all forms of blood cancer. It has sunk £6m into 11 projects in Yorkshire, and funded research at York, Sheffield and Leeds Universities.
Its acting chief executive, Diana Jupp, said royalties from the film and stage versions of the Calendar Girls’ story, and bucket collections from the West End audiences of the new musical, had generated a continuing stream of income, with a target of £5m now on the horizon.
“If you look back 18 years, no-one would have known the journey they would go on,” she said.
“It has been the most incredible adventure, and it is all about them as individual women wanting to make a difference and not waiting to give up.”
The new fund-raiser, Tea With the Girls, encourages women to get together with friends for afternoon tea. “This is a way of other people being able to help, too,” Ms Jupp said. “Pop the kettle on, get the cakes in, or the fizzy, and have a fund raising event.”