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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 17:49 GMT 18:49 UK
Calendar Girls charms Cannes
Helen Bushby
By Helen Bushby
BBC News Online Entertainment staff in Cannes

Calendar Girls, a film about a group of Women's Institute members who posed nude for a charity calendar, is creating a buzz at the Cannes Film Festival.

The movie is based on the real-life story of Angela Baker and Tricia Stewart, played by Julie Walters and Helen Mirren, who decided to raise money for leukaemia charities after Mrs Baker's husband died of cancer in 1998.

Instead of the usual WI calendars which feature "village greens, hills, dales and post boxes", Mrs Stewart came up with the idea of stripping off and being photographed in traditional WI poses such as knitting, jam-making and flower arranging.

Helen Mirren and Julie Walters
Helen Mirren and Julie Walters launch the film in Cannes
The pictures, taken in 1999, were carefully posed to preserve the modesty of the 11 women, aged between 45 and 65, and the calendars were put on sale in their local pub in Cracoe, a Yorkshire Dales village.

They posed for the sepia-tinted photos by hiding discreetly behind strategically placed cherry tarts, sunflowers and sieves, to name but a few.

They thought the ruse would help raise a few extra pounds for charity, and were taken completely by surprise when the story caught the media's imagination and hit headlines around the world.

'Make a fortune'

The calendars sold 88,000 copies in the UK and nearly 200,000 in the US, making £578,000 for charity.

In the US the images managed to outstrip the calendar sales of Britney Spears, Cindy Crawford and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit.

London Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker told BBC News Online he "loved" the movie.

"It's a good example of a very straightforward story which hasn't been messed up by the film - it will make a fortune," he said.

Calendar Girls
Critics are backing the film
He said it would be the next big success for the UK after the hit movie The Full Monty, which also, incidentally, involved a group of unlikely people taking their clothes off.

"It's about reticence rather than randiness," he added.

The Guardian's Fiachra Gibbons said the script is already being called "cinematic hormone replacement therapy", and said it had critics in Cannes "blubbing and laughing".

He added that he thought it could beat Billy Elliot and The Full Monty at the box office, which were huge successes for the UK film industry both critically and financially.

The women's journey from kitchen sink to Hollywood was not smooth however - once their story had hit the headlines, film offers were made, and this began to cause conflict.

Harbour Films, backed by Disney, made the first approach while a second was made by British comic Victoria Wood, who lived several miles away from the women's village.

Disagreement over who the women should choose did cause problems between them, but they eventually resolved it by voting. Harbour films won by just one vote.

"We've all just had to agree to disagree now," Mrs Stewart told The Guardian. "And we just don't mention the calendar..."

The original Calendar Girls
The original Calendar Girls
Harbour Pictures told the newspaper that the story is a tale of "grit, determination, celebrity, of life in the spotlight and the enduring power of love and friendship".

The film's director, Nigel Cole, said in Cannes that it was a "special film to make because we had an extraordinary true story to tell".

The actresses, who also include Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton, had to strip like their real-life counterparts.

"They entered into the spirit of things very well and were incredibly brave - after all, this is a film about taking your clothes off," Cole said.

"It also demonstrates the breadth of talent of actresses over 40 who don't get the chance to show those talents in many films.

"That might not seem such a big deal out here in the sunny South of France, but when you're doing it in the cold of Yorkshire it certainly is."

Calendar Girls premières in the UK in September.

The BBC's Robin Nisbet
"Not your typical scantily clad starlets in the Riviera sunshine"


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