The naked truth about Oxo mum
For a generation of television viewers Lynda Bellingham will always be the OXO mum. Despite joining the Loose Women panel, an appearance on Strictly Come Dancing, and writing her revealing autobiography, it was in hit musical Calendar Girls that she had the chance to lose the mumsy image that had followed her for 40 years.
Before the show even got the green light Lynda was invited to the initial read-through with a host of other famous actresses.
She says: "I was asked to read Chris, which is the part played by Helen Mirren in the film. I was thrilled because she's the bolshy, headstrong member of the group, and is a bit more of an edgy character, unlike Annie, which is the role played by Julie Walters in the film.
"It was an opportunity to shake off the mumsy image that I'm branded with. I've grown to embrace that role over the years, I'm grateful that people know who I am but when I played the role of Irene Radford, the mother of a gang of villains in The Bill, it was great to be able to do something a bit different."
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But just before the reading there was a change of plan and Lynda was asked to read Annie.
"I was really miffed," she says. "I'd almost learned the script and I was desperate for the part. My husband, who isn't ever short of words, told me I should stand up for myself and argue my case so I did.
"They let me read Chris and afterwards Tim Firth, the writer, thanked me. He told me I had shown him where the holes were in the script and then David Pugh, the producer, told me he couldn't imagine anyone else doing the part.
"I think although you can be typecast as an actor the audience are brighter than that and as long as they trust you they will come and see what you are doing. It's always nice to have the opportunity to show off what you can do."
And little did Lynda know what a success Calendar Girls was to become.
The story of the musical follows the members of a very ordinary Yorkshire WI who spark a global phenomenon by persuading one another to pose for a naked charity calendar. As news of their story spreads they end up revealing more than they ever imagined.
Since opening in Chichester in September 2008 Lynda has continued to play the part and will return to Bristol this month for the final national tour.
She says: "I remember that opening and Chichester has a reputation for being notoriously sombre – they are serious theatregoers but they were on their feet at the end of the performance.
"Even then I don't think anyone could have seen that we would still be here four years on."
But the show, which has raised more than £3 million for Leukaemia Research, has continued to sell out theatres.
She says: "It was a surprise for me when I read the play because it is so emotional. Of course there is the comedy element of the stripping off but you get more wrapped up in the emotion and the stories of the women in the group.
"In the film, not to do that any discredit it in any way, I think you had Helen and Julie in the key roles and the stories of the other women were a bit lost. In the play you get more of a sense of the six women as a group and the emotions they are going through.
"I think it's so popular – the bonds between those women and, also, the fact that cancer has touched almost everyone in the audience in some way – it's a bit like going to church.
"It's incredible that in the 1990s this group of women made something happen. The nakedness is scary but we get used to it over the years.
"We have to remind ourselves to be nervous to create that tension in the story. We're not models – we're real women and a lot of women find the part where we do strip off very empowering. You're incredibly vulnerable at that point."
Over the past four years Lynda says she has built up strong friendships with the stellar line-up of actresses including Jan Harvey, Ruth Madoc and Sue Holderness, who have stripped off on the stage.
She says: "I'm trying to put off thinking about it coming to an end. It will be emotional. It's because the audience have been so fantastic that I've been able to keep going. It sounds like a cliche but you can go on feeling a bit low and come off feeling a million dollars. We've had such amazing feedback and played such amazing houses.
"I've worked with some great people and while I've been doing this, and other things, I've taken it for granted that Calendar Girls has always been there."
And over the past four years Lynda says there have been many highlights and a return to Bristol will be emotional for very personal reasons.
"One of the tours that stays in my head is when my son played Laurence, the photographer. I was standing in the wings watching him perform and it was very moving. Glasgow and Edinburgh have been great and Bristol, too.
"I started my life in Bristol because I was adopted. My adoptive father was a pilot and we lived in Bristol for the first three years of my life.
"I lost both my parents in 2005 but my mother was in the WI and I would have loved for them to have seen me in this."