Incoming Calendar Girl Jill Halfpenny tells Caroline Bishop about learning to be body-confident in the media glare.
Rarely, in the history of the West End, has a props department borne such weight upon it shoulders. Are the iced buns kept under lock and key? Are the pot plants chained to a cupboard? Because should a Danish pastry go walkabout, or a ball of wool unravel, it could have revealing consequences for the new cast of Calendar Girls.
But, when I meet her prior to her opening night, Jill Halfpenny isn’t too worried. The star of Waterloo Road and Strictly Come Dancing seems pretty relaxed about baring her flesh – but for those strategically placed props – nightly on stage at the Duke of York’s theatre. “I don’t think any of us are that kind of nervous about it,” she shrugs, somewhat contradicting a recent Daily Mail interview which purports June Brown to be horrified at the prospect and Jerry Hall worried whether the iced buns will be large enough to cover her assets.
But then Halfpenny is not the most obvious candidate to play one of the Calendar Girls, the plucky members of the Napley WI in Yorkshire who caused a media sensation when, in 1998, they posed tastefully nude for a charity calendar in memory of the husband of Miss February, Angela Baker, who died of Leukaemia. For starters, at 34, Halfpenny is younger than the women of the story (and the best part of half a century younger than her 82-year-old co-star Brown); secondly, she had the body confidence, just a few years ago, to pose in her underwear for lads mags FHM and Loaded. Unlike the real-life members of the Napley WI, nudity, for Halfpenny, is not such a big deal. “That’s why we have to put ourselves in the position of these women and not think about how we think about it. We all turned up for our photoshoot; yeah we’re a bit nervous but it’s like, ok let’s do it. That’s not how these women think, these women are petrified. This is huge for them.”
Their story has been hard to miss in the last decade; the actions of these WI ladies attracted the American media and spawned the 2003 hit film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. The women had already raised £1.5 million for Leukaemia Research before the film’s writer, Tim Firth, decided to translate the story for a stage version, which, despite lukewarm reviews, has become this year’s surprise West End hit, with the £1.50 booking fee on each ticket donated towards increasing that charitable total.
"I think we should just get over it a little bit and just celebrate the fact that people can do whatever they want to do with their own bodies"
The success of the production could be attributed to the fact that the core of the tale – a wife losing her husband to cancer – resonates, sadly, with many; secondly that the show contains that rarity in the West End, a cast that is predominantly female and over 40, a demographic which reflects a potentially vast audience. However, success is undoubtedly anchored by the prop-heavy, amusingly staged scene in which the women strip for the photographer. It is not gratuitous; rather, it is the centrepiece of a story that is an homage to the older woman, a rare celebration of ordinary women’s bodies and their right to feel confident about them, wobbly bits and all.
Though it must be harder for her older co-stars to strip on stage, Halfpenny, who plays Cora, feels that the story is not really about age; the fact she is the youngest of the new intake of Calendar Girls is therefore irrelevant. “We’ve had this discussion in rehearsals. I don’t think Cora is ashamed to take her clothes off because she is something years old, she doesn’t want to take her clothes off because she has very little confidence and she is not really into taking her clothes off in front of people. So it is the same premise but I think age just isn’t a factor for her; it’s not ‘I am something years old’, it’s ‘I’m a single mother, I’m a vicar’s daughter, I’m the church organist, what are people going to think?’ So it’s just a slight kind of different angle really.”
It is appropriate that Halfpenny should be giving Cora the confidence boost she needs. “I don’t have a problem with people showing their body, I don’t have a problem with women celebrating what they’ve got or men celebrating what they’ve got,” she says, when asked why she chose to pose for an FHM cover shoot in 2004. “FHM asked if I would do it. I knew the pictures would be beautiful because they always are. I shot them with a lovely woman French photographer who was absolutely lovely to me and we had really good fun in this beautiful hotel room in this lovely lingerie. And I thought the pictures were great and I felt good and there were just no other issues than that.”
Though she is perfectly composed in her response, a sense of frustration that she should be asked at all seems to hover behind the smile. “It’s such a big deal made about the whole thing and I think we should just get over it a little bit and just celebrate the fact that people can do whatever they want to do with their own bodies you know,” she adds.
Unlike the real Calendar Girls, Halfpenny has been in the media spotlight for most of her life, since first appearing on television in BBC children’s soap Byker Grove in 1989. As such, she is used to the pressures that the industry imposes on actors – especially women – regarding their bodies. “That in itself is quite hard, being put on television and people are watching you, so I’m used to people commenting on how I look. And that has probably knocked my confidence and given me confidence both at the same time. Because you’re kind of used to it and then you build up a thick skin and you go, you know what? It’s ok. They are trying to be nice,” she laughs.
Last year she gave birth to her son, Harvey, with actor husband Craig Conway, which consolidated her healthy attitude towards her body. “There are things that have changed about my body since I’ve had Harvey and there’s things that I would rather they didn’t look like they looked. But then, as cheesy as it sounds, sometimes I look at them [sic] parts of the body that I’m talking about and I think well that’s where Harvey was, that’s what happened, that’s where he came from and you kind of think, you know what, it’s fine. In a funny kind of way I think it’s sometimes given me more confidence about my body because I kind of go, hey, I’ve had a baby and I still feel alright about myself.”
She put her body through its paces in the second series of Strictly Come Dancing, which she won with professional partner Darren Bennett. Although Halfpenny was already well known and had just come out of a spell in EastEnders – halfway through the dance show she was told her contract with the soap wouldn’t be renewed, which gave her “unbelievable focus” to concentrate on dancing – she was unprepared for the way Strictly would boost her public profile. “[I] came out of EastEnders as Kate Mitchell or Phil’s bird, and came out of Strictly Come Dancing as Jill Halfpenny. That really was the huge, huge difference that that programme made. People still always will recognise me from [EastEnders] but people mainly talk about Strictly. So that was the biggest gear shift ever, and one which came really left field.”
"It was the most exciting thing and when I was at school I couldn’t wait until school had finished because I knew I was going to the theatre that night"
She adored the programme, having loved dancing since taking ballet lessons as a child, and only wishes she hadn’t done it “because I would like to do it! Every time it starts I think ‘I wish I was one of the contestants!’”
The increased profile she gained from the show created opportunities – including a stint as Roxie Hart in Chicago in the West End – but Halfpenny is no publicity hungry reality star. She has been a jobbing actor since her early teens, when she first became interested in the profession. She laughs now to think of her tenacious, proactive younger self who would scan audition adverts in the paper and take herself off to Newcastle Playhouse with a friend to audition for roles in visiting company productions. “It was a bit like right, ok, there, 10 o’ clock Saturday, Newcastle Playhouse, ok that’s where we’re going. One of our mams would come with us, we’d trundle along, then we’d come back at six o’clock that night having been put through the mill. There was no mobile phones or emails then, it was like, yeah they just said they would call! It was just so innocent and easy.”
“I absolutely loved it,” she says of those early days in the theatre and her subsequent time in Byker Grove alongside co-stars including Ant and Dec and Donna Air. “It was the most exciting thing and when I was at school I couldn’t wait until school had finished because I knew I was going to the theatre that night. And then I just thought I really want to go to drama school.”
After graduating from the Webber Douglas Academy, Halfpenny may have kept in the limelight through her television work, but she has always returned to the theatre, appearing in productions for Live Theatre Newcastle, Hull Truck theatre, Sheffield Crucible and Birmingham Rep. Last year, whilst pregnant, she gave a well-received performance alongside Michael Barrymore in Richard Harris’s play Surviving Spike in Windsor, repeating the performance, four months after having given birth, at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. “I have to say it was harder doing it when I was pregnant. My brain just scrambled. I haven’t had a problem learning lines until that play. When people say ‘pregnant brain’, that’s what I felt like. I actually found it easier [after having her baby] – even though it was hard to come home and breastfeed and things like that – mind-wise I felt more focused.”
With her mind unscrambled and her physique back in shape – helped, no doubt, by a stint on the Strictly Come Dancing live tour earlier this year – Halfpenny is on form for her return to the West End to help her character Cora gain the same healthy body-image that she has.