Being part of Calendar Girls is well worth casting off your inhibitions, Lynda Bellingham tells Diane Parkes.
Every night actress Lynda Bellingham is stripping off in front of an audience full of theatre-goers. But far from being intimidated by the experience in the show Calendar Girls, 61-year-old Lynda has already come to see it as just part of the job.
“It was very nerve-wracking the first time but once you have done it you just think ‘sod it’ and get on with it,” she says. “You actually become quite trigger happy with it.
“And it isn’t as if it is sexual or anything. It is difficult doing love scenes because that involves all sorts of things. The whole purpose here is that you don’t see anything. We are naked to each other but no one else is supposed to see anything.
“What is interesting is that everyone is really interested in the nudity but actually it is only a very small part of the story.
The story is actually about some real women in a small village in Yorkshire who were prepared to do this.”
Lynda first signed up to Calendar Girls in the West End in 2008 and enjoyed it so much she was keen to return to the touring version where she is joined by a cast including Gemma Atkinson, Hannah Waterman, Letitia Dean, Jan Harvey and Judith Barker.
Playing in Birmingham for the last week in February only, it sold out months ago. So great is the interest that the show returns in June, although with a different cast.
Based on true events, Calendar Girls tells the story of a group of friends and members of the Rylestone Women’s Institute who created a cheeky calendar to raise money for leukaemia research.
Following the death of John, the husband of one of the women Angela, from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998, the group decided to pose for pictures naked but hiding behind teapots, cakes and sunflowers, John’s symbol of hope.
The story was made into a film with Helen Mirren, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, and Smethwick actress Julia Walters.
And the stage show, written by Tim Firth and directed by Hamish McColl, has been a runaway success with sell-out performances in London and on its tour of the UK.
And Lynda says the story is irresistible.
“Historically we are talking about a group of women of a certain age, an age at which they were used to being ignored by general society, who did something very special,” she says. “It is a wonderful story.
“When I first took the job in 2008 the first thing I did was read the diary of Tricia Stuart, the woman I am playing. It was a fascinating insight into what they were doing.
“Our children can be terribly embarrassed if we do anything which makes us different so to pose naked for a calendar was such a brave step.
“Tricia writes about when they did the nude scene and says they all drank a bit too much wine before having the photographs taken. We can’t do that on stage of course.
“But you know as actresses we know that there are times when we may have to do nude scenes. ‘It is part of our psyche that it may happen but for them it was something totally unexpected.
“But they have since raised more than two-and-a-half million pounds for charity so their achievement is incredible.”
Lynda may be happy posing on stage behind a sunflower but she admits to being less confident when she became a contestant on the television series Strictly Come Dancing last year.
“I wasn’t actually worried about the dancing part as I am quite fit. In fact the worst part for me was having to go out there every Saturday night in a dress where it was impossible to hide the bad bits.
“I refuse to diet to the point where I would have to if I were a film star but it did take me a while to feel comfortable. I think in the end it was actually confidence-building
‘‘But then that is because if you don’t look in the mirror you can believe you are Bridget Bardot or Jane Fonda in those dresses.”
Knocked out in the fourth week, Lynda would have liked her experience to have lasted longer.
“I did feel sorry that I went out when I did and would have liked to have stayed in a couple more weeks,” she says.
“I was just getting to the point where I had gone from learning to dance to actually dancing. I was past the nerves.
“The show is not about being the perfect dancer, it is about people’s experience in becoming a dancer. If we were all experts at the beginning it would be a different type of show.”
Lynda was partnered with professional dancer Darren Bennett – who proved to be a hard taskmaster.
“He is lovely but he is also a perfectionist. He wouldn’t let me get away with anything.
‘‘He said to me right from the beginning that he was going to treat me the same as he would a professional dancer and that is the best way to do it.”
But since leaving the series last autumn, Lynda has not had much chance to pull on those dancing shoes again.
“I haven’t had time,” she sighs. “But it is very useful when I am doing charity events and I can dance.
‘‘I can actually charge people to put a few pounds in the pot and then have a go.”
Calendar Girls plays Birmingham Hippodrome from February 22- 27, tickets: 0844 338 5000, www.birminghamhippodrome.com