But the WI and their lack of knickers is the reason that I’m here. Gary, 46, has teamed up with Tim Firth, who grew up in the same village – Frodsham in Cheshire – to create The Girls, the third and this time a musical incarnation of the hit film, and play, Calendar Girls. Based on the true story of the Yorkshire WI women, who whipped off their kits 18 years ago, it was first made into a hit movie starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters and then a sell-out play which opened in Chichester, West Sussex, and transferred to the West End. Gary
and Tim, who wrote the original play and co-wrote the film, have turned it into a musical comedy which is receiving standing ovations at every performance.
The story of the ladies of Rylstone WI is well known. The women decided to make the calendar to raise money for leukaemia and lymphoma research after the death of one of their husbands. They posed doing various traditional WI activities, such as knitting and baking – in the nude. They said they wanted to buy a comfy sofa for their local hospital. Since then they have raised enough money to buy a sofa for pretty much every sitting room in the country – almost £5 million to date. Now more of the story is about to be told in Tim and Gary’s musical version. Through Gary’s music and his and Tim’s lyrics, the show explores the effect making the calendar had on husbands, sons and daughters and how a group of ordinary women achieved something extraordinary.
‘I love its cross-generational appeal,’ Barlow has admitted before. ‘I took my mum to see the film and then I went to see the play, which I think is actually better. It’s deeper somehow, more moving.’
Most of the musical was written at Gary’s mum’s kitchen table with her supplying endless cups of tea. ‘There was a health evolution, though. She started off bringing biscuits in and four years later we just got a plate of kale,’ laughs Gary, adding: ‘But it never felt like we were working.’
His and Tim’s easy friendship – which is 25 years and counting – echoes those of the women at the centre of the story. ‘It’s about a group of friends coming together to rally, inspire and help a friend who is in need,’ Tim says. ‘They get themselves through the hardest of times with the simplest of weapons: comedy. The piece, especially the nude scene where they take the photographs for the calendar, is an absolute metaphor for that; unless everybody on that stage is looking out for everyone else they are exposed. Their safety and vulnerability is in the hands of their friends.’
Right then Gary learns I’m from Sussex. ‘I’ve heard that Chichester and that part of the world is very nice. I must come and visit sometime,’ he smiles. I can only nod.
That grin and lime scent has caught me off-guard again.
He has, of course, a formidable track record in the music industry, both in Take That and as a solo artist. He has sold more than 50m records, won six Ivor Novello Awards – the Oscars of the musical world – and was awarded an OBE in 2012 for services to music and charity. He’s also been a judge on the The X Factor.
His passion to be the best means that out of the 75 songs created for the show, only a handful made it through. ‘We wanted this to sound British,’ he has said. ‘We’re both from up North and that’s where the British sound comes from.’ They looked to the Beatles’ album Revolver for inspiration.
The story started from women wanting
to do their bit for charity and the play
follows that ethos. It’s something producer David Pugh, who has bought many of his shows to Sussex and Hampshire playhouses, including the world premiere of Calendar Girls at Chichester Festival Theatre, is
‘The Girls raises money for the UK’s specialist blood cancer charity, Bloodwise, at every performance,’ he says. ‘We hope that it also highlights the extraordinary work done by hospitals and hospices across the country. Oncology departments such as those at Chichester’s St Richard’s, the Hampshire Hospitals Group and Worthing Hospital,
and at places like St Wilfrid’s Hospice, The Rowans and St Barnabas House, take care of our loved ones with such expertise, dedication and compassion and they need our ongoing support.’
As for the cast, they have nothing but praise for ‘their boys’ and the show. ‘I’m delighted to be part of such a great British story about women who took it upon themselves to make a difference,’ says Sophie-Louise Dann, who plays Celia and lives in Bexhill, East Sussex. ‘I’ve been a Take That fan forever, so it really is a privilege to work with Gary. He’s been amazing; he has really embraced our genre.’
Gary grins. ‘I’ve never had a show in the West End before and I just can’t wait to walk up that street and into the Phoenix Theatre,’ he says. This is his foray into the world of theatre, but it certainly won’t be his last. He’s already working on staging another show, The Band, featuring the music of Take That. It is currently being cast via the BBC Saturday night TV talent show Let It Shine. But while he might be on the small screen looking for the five guys to play Britain’s top boy band, right now it’s all about The Girls. We’re just glad Gary’s found a new musical outlet as it means just one thing. He’s Back For Good.
The Girls is at the Phoenix Theatre, London. www.thegirlsmusical.com