Cover Story: Tale of Giving, Not Raking in Profits

Calendar Girls resonates with holiday charity

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Nick Wall

Actresses Helen Mirren (second from right) and Julie Walters (second from left) have some fun with Tricia Stewart (far left) and Angela Baker (far right) — the real women who inspired the characters in Calendar Girls.

The season of giving — by Hollywood standards — is all about receiving. Cinema stockings are overcrowded with the same prestige blockbusters. Studio heads clamor for the current equivalent of gold, frankincense and myrrh. For a few gaudy film trinkets, audiences are expected to give their dollars and their dollars' dollars.

The one bit of Christmas surprise is that director Nigel Cole's latest release, Calendar Girls, starring veteran British actresses Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, is focused almost exclusively on the quaint notion of the act of giving.

Calendar Girls — which opens in some cities later this month and in Cincinnati Jan. 9 — was inspired by the story of Angela Baker, (Walters plays Annie, the film character based on Baker), a British woman whose husband, John, died of leukemia in 1998. Baker is a member of Women's Institute (WI), a national charitable organization for women in Britain that sponsors monthly events. She and 10 other members of her local WI decided to pose nude for a calendar and donate the proceeds to the hospital ward where her husband had received his treatment. The kicker is that Baker and her mates are respectable middle-aged mothers and wives and, as such, are highly unlikely candidates for something as risqué as a nude calendar.

The calendar became an international success.

The "Calendar Girls" crossed the Atlantic and took the states by storm, appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and countless morning shows while raising millions for leukemia research. Somewhere along the way, Hollywood came knocking, quite possibly after kicking itself for not thinking of the idea first.

Cole (Saving Grace) had been a sidelines spectator during early attempts to acquire the rights to Baker's story. Talking recently from Los Angeles, he recalls how almost a year after the initial story broke he received a call from Harbour Pictures.

"At that stage, they had secured the rights from the ladies," Cole says. "You know there had been competition to get the rights because everybody thought it was a great idea for a film. The ladies had been approached by several producers wanting to buy the rights. I remember the producers got a call from one of the real Calendar Girls, saying, 'Do you know who Scott Rudin is, because he keeps calling me?' She said, 'Should I return his call?' And I think one person said, 'No, don't return his call.' "

While Calendar Girls has a strong comedic element, Cole and screenwriters Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi weren't interested in limiting themselves to the laughs at the expense of the women's relationships. The film addresses how their rising celebrity impacts their internal group relations as well as their families and their small community, including other members of the local WI who didn't participate in the calendar. Walters sensitively grounds her portrait of the Angela Baker character in her determination to do what's in the best interest of her husband's memory.

Certain liberties were taken in translating the stories and experiences of these women. Yet Baker's love and dedication to John and her efforts to remain focused on the overall goal of raising money for leukemia research is ever present.

Baker also participated in interviews for the film, much like she has during each step of the process, which includes a second calendar. In England, by the end of 2000 their first calendar had sold 88,000 copies, and they expect to top £1 million for leukemia research this year.

The great rewards have come at even greater expense for Baker. The stars of the film will make other films and continue on this roller-coaster ride. But Baker realizes that, for her and the Calendar Girls, "This is just a one off thing in our lives and then we get back home to our normal lives."

Baker continues, "I know that when I get back home and turn the key that there's no one there because there's no John and I find that very hard. But we never, ever forget why we did this calendar, why we did this movie and why we did the other calendar. We did it because John died, and we've done it to raise money for leukemia research to help other people."

The original goal was rather modest. They wanted to collect maybe £5,000. In the film, the women hope to use the money to buy a couch for the family room on the treatment ward to replace the sunken, lumpy lounger they spent too many hours on during John's treatment sessions.

Now Baker and the girls can visit the new outpatient ward at the hospital in Leeds or the research unit named for John at Leeds University or the laboratories with equipment stamped with the leukemia research seal. They know that much has been given, and they hope a bit more will come from their contribution before this season of giving ends. ©

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