Loose Woman and Oxo Mum Lynda Bellingham paid a flying visit to Liverpool on Friday to launch the latest production of Calendar Girls.
The show returns to the Empire in November with some of the familiar faces in the cast from its last outing a just year ago but also plenty of new ones, Bellingham included. She’s a perfect fit for the show – her bold and fun nature and no-nonsense femininity are a winning combination.
The actress has been involved in the hit production – a stage version of the film about the fundraising antics of a Women’s Institute branch — since its inception. “Like the rest of my life, nothing is easy and this wasn’t either,” she laughs. Before the show even got the green light, Bellingham was invited to the initial read through with a host of other famous actresses. She’d been called to read the part of Chris, the bolshy, headstrong member of the group. Even at that very early stage, Bellingham was desperate to see the work-in-progress script in her hand become a reality.
“I was absolutely thrilled,” she recalls. “I thought, nobody ever gives me the edgy part. I’d been typecast, never got the sexy roles. I practically learned the script then, I was desperate for the part. Then the producer wanted me to read Annie [a much more subdued, mumsy character]. I went home in tears, I thought I’d been sacked before it’d even begun.”
Eventually, the producers reneged, and Bellingham has been playing the part of Chris on and off ever since. It’s something she takes very seriously. “I feel such an affinity with Chris and with the play,” she says. “I come in as a Loose Woman, as someone turning 60, and I feel personally responsible for anyone over 50 who is being ignored.”
This is where Bellingham hits her stride, and once she starts talking, doesn’t stop. It might be the trend these days for the more mature television personality to concede defeat, and joke that people only want to see the young and beautiful on their screens anyway. Bellingham knows this is nonsense. She sets out to prove it and doesn’t mince her words. Women over 50 should have no fear of being “hidden away”, she says. It’s all about going out and “giving it some welly”.
“Bloody television,” she says. “Run by little 12-year-old boys with spots who haven’t got a clue. When you tell them you’re 60, all they can think of is Miss Marple. All they care about is money.
“This play has grossed over £25m in the last three years, and raised £500,000 for Leukaemia Research off the back of ticket sales alone. Some 8,000 to 10,000 women a week, of a certain age it must be said — who want to come out, who want to be stylish, who want to be out giving it some welly, who have been hidden away — are coming to see it. And now those 12-year-olds now know there’s money in them thar hills.”
That’s not to say she approached Calendar Girls’ MO – stripping off – with any enthusiasm. But now, she’s happy with her looks and gets on with the task in hand.
“It’s taken me 60 years not to care. Of course you don’t look like a model who’s been airbrushed, and there’s nothing good about being old,” she says. “I’ve held on to my legs – you’ve got to give or take. But you get quite blasé about it in the end, actually. Now I’m in the changing rooms and just get it all off!”
Although Bellingham hasn’t performed in Liverpool before, she does have credentials. “It’s not my first trip up – I’m proud to say I have an honorary doctorate from LIPA that was presented to me by Sir Paul. It was the highlight of my life,” she enthuses.
“It is extraordinary how loved he is. When we were waiting to go in I cracked a dirty joke – as is my wont – and Paul laughed. I said to him how strange it was that we know you, but you don’t know us at all. He said he was brought up with the Oxo Mum and that I’m a national treasure!”
Calendar Girls returns to the Empire from November 21 to 26 2011. New cast members Lynda Bellingham, Debbie Chazen, Jan Harvey, Rula Lenska, June Watson, Jane Lambert and Camilla Dallerup join old hands Jennifer Ellison, John Lambanowski, Bruno Langley and Joe McGann.