John (John Alderton) and Annie (Julie Walters) — looking out over Yorkshire
Chris (Helen Mirren) as January
Dear friends and readers,
I decided to re-watch the 2003 film, Calendar Girls because I discovered Juliette Towhidi, scriptwriter of Death Comes to Pemberley (out of P.D. James’s mystery-novel-sequel of the same name, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) had adapted the stage-play, Calendar Girls, by Tim Firth, and remembered I had liked the movie so much I had been prompted to buy the DVD well before the time when I became intensely interested in movies as an art. It was only much later that I began to buy many DVDs of films adapted from favorite authors of great and older books for British TV stations. I’d just been studying several Jane Austen movies, and have been very impressed by the film adaptation by Towhidi and her whole team (director, producers, actors, cinematographers), and convinced of the centrality of the screenplay to its gothic romance success. So I wanted to watch a movie where she had written the screenplay.
Try to imagine my surprise and emotions when I realized the emotional center, and instigating cause oF Calendar Girls is another cancer story. I was ashamed to think I had been, as the movie intended me to be, led to marginalize, even forget the story’s origin and powerful source, for all it stared at me in the face. Chris (Helen Mirren) justifies her plan to raise a large sum of money by posing naked with 10 other middle-aged women friends to provide 12 photos for a Womens’ Institute Calendar thus:
FRANKLY if it meant we’d get — (she gestures a ‘tiny amount’) — THAT-T much closer to killing off this shitty, cheating, sly, conniving, silent bloody disease that cancer is then God, I tell y’, I would run round Skipton market smeared in plum jam with a knitted tea cosy on my head singing Jerusalem (Firth’s stageplay, Act 2, sc 1, p 46)
Their aim is to purchase a new and large and genuinely comfortable sofa for “the relatives’ room” in Knapeley General Hospital, the room where she and her best friend, Annie (Julie Walters) had spent (in Julie’s sudden concise words) “some of the most terrible moments of her life” while Julie’s beloved husband, John (John Alderton, a character based on a real man who died of leukemia, John Baker) was enduring the misery and pain of the shows of force the medical establishment inflicts on cancer victims. Julie’s husband of 28 years in the film story is a man who loves and makes gardens flourish; his favorite is the sunflower, and as he and Julie sat in their car overlooking Yorkshire shortly before his agony and death, he explained why:
I don’t think there’s anything on this planet that more trumpets life than the sunflower. For me, that’s because of the reason behind its name. Not because — Not because it ‘looks like’ the sun. Because it follows the sun. During the course of the day, the head tracks the journey of the sun across the sky [Helen Mirren's arm and hand curve an arc across the space she is standing in as she retells this]. A satellite dish for sunshine. Sow these seeds on the hill and you’ll see … that wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it. Which is such an admirable thing (Beat) And such a lesson in life (firth, Act 1, sc 4, pp 24-25)
Chris takes this as directive to make the calendar from John’s spoken analogy of his sense of Julie’s beauty with that of this flower:
Flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire. Every stage of their growth has its own beauty. (PAUSE FOR BREATH) but the last phase is always the most glorious … [then gently undercutting the emotion] Then very quickly they all go to seed (Howtidi’s script, Act 1, 29A)
Ruth Wilson (Penelope Wilton as ever the comedienne), one of the women who consents to be so photographed quips
With respect, I didn’t hear him say the phrase, ‘whip y’r bras off’ (Howtidi, Act 1, 47)
In fairness to myself, I was able to ignore the death of John, his pain and his and his wife’s quiet despair, Annie’s loss and continuing grief– which is expressed more directly and plagently near the end of the film than anywhere else — she would rather have one more hour of life for John than all the money and publicity they have gathered for this “cause” — because this film like most stories of cancer persist in keeping the actual cancer experience to the margins. John’s cancer gets very little play in the movie, on screen now and again briefly, it’s presented as part of another ennobling, enrichening experience which has resulted from this cancer (Breaking Bad breaks from this pattern by making Walter White’s heroic actions criminal and murderous): the making of the calendar and the money it accrues and interest it stirs. The structure of this film, is life-affirming, with the calendar also as meaningful publicity stunt: it appeals to the lower impulses of people yet produces money for a center for studying leukemia as well as the needed sopha. Its mood idealizes Yorkshire by presenting it as green meadows in the sun, which was puzzling even in 2003 as I’ve lived in the West Riding and know it has many impoverished cities and its characteristics landscape is brown, dark moors. The presentation of the characters when it comes to the experience of cancer itself is all silent strength and tact — a ploy which has the effect of assigning responsibility to the patient and the “relatives”.
In short the movie conforms to what studies claim most people who have not had cancer want to be told. Do they want to be told this? Judy C. Segal in her “Cancer Experience and Its Narration: An Accidental Study,” Literature and Medicine, 30:2 (2012):292-318) throws some doubt on this formula; at least in her study, people who have had cancer, their friends and relatives and those who participated in the study seemed to prefer some modicum of truth, though most accepted constraints on the speakable. I found in doing a bit of research on it in Project Muse that two real-cancer epidemic news-stories were cited as possibly motivating Firth – who wrote the first play, a success which moved from a local Chichester Festival (2008) to London, the Noel Coward Theater, with a starry cast (including Patricia Hodge as Annie, Sian Phillips as Jessie, Lynda Bellingham as Chris): two sudden spike-ups in the number of cancers in an area of Scotland where some corporations had been polluting the environment and in an area of northern England (whence the use of Yorkshire). Unfortunately if this is so, neither of these important realities are cited anywhere in the stageplay, screenplay by Howtidi adapting it or any of the literature on the public Internet surrounding it.
To take the movie on the grounds it presents itself, I still enjoyed it — at least the first half to two-thirds, because — I admit this — it was done as a fable about a group of women friends who keep each other company through life, supporting one another in crises with real warmth, kindness, tact and humor. It’s feminocentric as we used to say in the 1990s (when feminism was still part of university literary talk). Women-centered. The emphasis is on festive release: these older women usually trussed up in respectable (not sexy at all) clothes revel in their bodies’s beauty
Ruth (during the course of the story she abjures her abject acceptance of her husband’s bullying indifference and sexual infidelity)
as they are photographed doing the usual respectable middle-aged ladies things, as sewing, baking, gardening, playing piano, and sketching, painting
Cora (Linda Bassett who in the course of the stage play reveals she was pressured successfully by her parents to break up her marriage with her African husband and became a single mother supporting herself and her daughter by running a shop)
and as Lawrence (John Glenister when young), the hospital aid who is discovered to be yearning to be a photographer (he couldn’t manage art school, it’s implied, because it’s too phony), elicits from each smiles of of pleasure and a sense of power:
Jessie (Annette Crosbie, who we discover taught for decades and had Lawrence as her pupil, is now married to an aging feeble husband, played comically salaciously by Graham Crowden)
The acting was done with comic bravura and panache. Each woman takes a month and the roll call corresponds to the intertitles we see punctuating the film as the seasons go by (January, February) and the photographing of the same landscape it seems in winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter again … It also had refrains and repeating scenes of the women’s togetherness so filled with good feeling, strength.
My first impulse was to think the British way of dealing with and if we must erase the realities of a cancer tragedy while trying to tell of it so much more civilized: only one person we know dies in the film, John; hundreds of letters are written to Annie, some of which read aloud appear to be by people who have lost a beloved person to cancer, so there are some more deaths. But no one is turned into raspberry sauce, no one beaten horrifically, violated, no open crime (I think of Breaking Bad) — unless you consider it a crime not to do anything for real about cancer and pretend you know what you are doing when you don’t (this film does not want to arouse any sense of irony so we never do see any doctors). Obviously the response is communal, the people work as a group (again as opposed to Breaking Bad where it seems to be a war of individuals filled with distrust most of whom get through life by lying). It does suggest the audience for this film are part of a far sounder society.
But before I went on to rest easy with Johnson’s “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens” (and who more eligible for that than the cancer sufferer), I remembered the real Leeds and Yorkshire I had lived in — not a pastoral village set in sparkling meadows with churches grand halls, and bought myself both the stage-play and shooting script. You can buy the latter because specially typed copies were prepared for the Golden Globe ceremonies (mine is signed by Towhidi and Firth; others are said to be signed by some of the stars).
A comparison showed me why the movie once the calendar is achieved and the women become ephemeral celebrities (the movie anticipated the present cult of celebrity), becomes weak and feels liked it’s lost more than its cancer story-line; seems slightly aimless. Why go to Hollywood and show us them on the Jay Leno show? in the movie’s it’s so we can see them in an extravagantly luxurious hotel? so he can make tasteless jokes? that’s all that happens before a sudden return to seriousness at the film’s close.
The second half of Tim Firth’s play remains women-centered, presents a real dramatization of what ambition among such women leads to, and the uncomfortableness of celebrity. First the text of the screenplay reveals some of the central women have had a hard time in life and came to live in Yorkshire because they were pushed into it and have made the best of what is sometimes a hard bargain. This comes out as under the pressure of celebrity, of each of the woman having to change her life for a time (travel, leave those dependent on them in crucial ways), and the women themselves arguing as they become jealous of one another or ashamed and irritated by the way they are treated by those exploiting them. I’ve mentioned how Cora’s parents broke up her relationship with her husband. This is not so much as whispered in the film: all we see is the single older mother, Cora, 55 now, with her light-skinned African-English daughter. She does say she fears her daughter will run away but does not elaborate why.
Cora and her daughter in the film — looking out an inner window in their shop
Celia (Celia Imrie) whom we see trailing around a golf-course behind her husband and has only one explicit association: she has the biggest breasts of the women and so, comically, when she rearranges the cakes with cherries on the tops in front of her to hide her breasts, ends up making her nipples all the more emphatic. In the play we learn she has no children, and is neglected by her financially successful husband who is bored by her, and she can get his company only by trailing around after him. There are worse fates, but she’d have rather lived in London and gone to plays. Ruth’s husband is downright abusive; if she has children, we don’t see any in either film or play;she appears to live for the husband. So when she breaks away and asserts herself it is gratifying. It in both film and play done by her confronting the other woman and Eddie (George Costigan has the thankless role in the film) cast aside as a nothing.
The strongest clash in the stage-play is fierce and makes the tension in the film between Marie (Geraldine James) who is the head of the WI Institute of Knapeley and said to be ambitious (in the shooting script directions) and Chris, look like child’s play. Marie is presented in the movie as an unacknowledged snob, a sucker-up to upper class women higher in the organization altogether too full of themselves, a priggish hypocrite, who visits Annie with a false expression of grief — one of the best lines in both film and play occurs when Marie says she knows what Annie is going through, and Annie echoes the cliched falsifying words — anyone who has been a widow will feel the knife Annie’s words would like to act as.
Annie answering Marie as Marie tries to shame her out of going on with the calendar
In the movie, Chris is not seriously ambitious; she cries a lot because her schemes (presented as games) end up disasters supposedly.
It’s a funny send-up of a contest when Chris buys a Victoria sponge from Marks & Spencers instead of making it herself
In the movie the clash is soon over; Marie gives in because she knows what she presents as fun is boring. But in the stageplay Marie and Christ are both presented as drivingly ambitious, and have bitter arguments where they strip one another’s motives and bare open frustrated feelings. The center remains the women and we see under the guise of togetherness, the women undermine one another and do what they can to gain whatever power is on offer.
Marie leading the meeting
It’s not “breaking bad” (they are not wildly fantastically destructive) but this WI is not a simple picnic and gay fair.
The movie develops a sub-story in the second half which is a distraction. It makes Chris’s son the obstacle in the way of her going to Hollywood to bask in her achievement. Her son is embarrrassed by the calendar which is also partly inspired by her finding a soft-core porn magazine of her son’s under his bed — this is not seriously critiqued at all; it’s the son’s friend who is obsessed by girls’ breasts and this is made a joke out of. Chris’s boy grows upset by teasing in school, is picked up by the police smoking cannabis, and not doing his homework. More seriously, her long-time husband, Rod (Ciarhan Hinds)’s business is suffering: “flower power,” apparently left-over from the sixties; she neglects him and it, but we are never to take this seriously, and he is there as the faithful boyfriend sitting by the hedge when she comes home. While he did give a newsman a story about how Chris doesn’t have the time to have sex with him any more this is shuffled off, forgotten, as he asserts nothing hurt, all is well. Scenes omitted from the film and in the screenplay are were of them having satisfying sex — that might have supported the first part of the film (on sex) but they were cut.
A touching scene of the couple where the man is dying of cancer and the couple where he’s not eating the cake bought from Marks and Spencer after the fair is done
The critique of ambition and cost of celebrity theme of the play is muted in the film, turned into tepid tea except at the very end when Annie (Julie Walters) runs out of a humiliating studio scene where the directors is expecting these women to strip for a laundry and wash-on-the-line with them behind it (har har) commercial because “that’s what you do, isn’t it?” The women leave Hollywood the next morning, and the film ends with warmth on their return to the WI in the great hall. Movie has several repeating motifs or refrains — as if it were itself a song — one if the women’s singing to Cora’s piano playing each time they meet, Blake’s partly radical and angry and uplifting lines from his “Preface to Milton” beginning “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s pleasant pastures seen?” The film celebrates the survival of the group, but it is a survival won more effectively in the play where more of the forces against this are done justice to.
Neither of these popular award-winning films (Breaking Bad or Calendar Girls) usefully dramatizes the situation of the cancer patient. A cornucopia of applied technologies and huge money are played with in both. The prism of illness now and again sheds light on the human condition, but the only film which has dared to focus on the cancer, the patient, that I’ve seen is Wit. Death in this movie Calendar Girls provides an excuse for moving speeches, communal self-help and a festive seasonal calendar; in the clearer fuller play there is an attempt at showing us painful aspects of women’s lives, of which Annie’s loss of John, his death, her widowhood is one.
At the close of the play we have three single older women: Annie, now widowed, Cora and Ruth, divorced, separated; one frustrated lonely woman in Celia, a frustrated ambitious women in Marie, with Chris carrying on as a kind of pied piper: she leads them in another of the film’s repeating motifs of hope and energy: we see them as a group high on sunny hill doing Chris’s made-up t’ai chi exercises as a kind of communal dance. They move slowly to some moving ordered music and the message is acceptance of what is by being together in rhythm, life’s rhythms.
Chris at the center
Ruth on the side
The group again
How common it is for women-centered films to present a group of women who are close friends, supporting one another. Alas, another myth. In societies around the world the family comes first and women’s relationships must bend to fit these groups’ demands first. Moments on hills together do not come with regularity. What can I say about Towhidi from this movie and Death Comes to Pemberley: she prefers women-centered materials, and has a strong tendency to make the women strong and idealize their relationships as ultimately supportive (even between Elizabeth and Lydia Bennet).
Since I met Jim in Yorkshire, lived with him there over two years, and we visited, even once planned to return, of course the movie has a personal resonance for me too. I’ve been to Skipton.