An Autumn day breaks on a village in Yorkshire where nothing seems to change except the seasons. At that evening’s meeting of the local Women’s Institute a dull guest speaker confronts a gang of women who act, thanks to rebellious gang leader Chris, like a load of naughty schoolgirls. Chris’s best mate of many years standing, Annie, is married to John, beloved of all. Later that night he reveals to Annie he has been for tests at the hospital. Some months later as hysteria unfolds around the WI ‘s Christmas Carol offering on the village green it is clear John is undergoing chemotherapy. He inspires the musical gang member Cora to lead them all off piste and sing an alternative Christmas carol, much to the disapproval of WI leader Marie, a woman trying to be a headmistress to middle aged women. By the time it comes to Spring Fete, John is seriously ill, but not too ill act as coach to the tug of war team and relish the fact that Chris wins the cake contest with a cake she bought at the local supermarket.
When John dies shortly afterwards it leaves a village without a vibrant husband and an inspiring friend. To help Annie rally, Chris reinterprets one of John’s mantras and comes up with an extraordinary idea to raise money to replace the old settee in the relatives’ room at the hospital – a settee which this pair have spent many long hours on. To do this they are going to raise money - but not by having a raffle as might be expected of a WI. Regularly Chris sees promotional calendars arrive at her and husband Rod’s florist shop featuring young girls holding tulips. They are going to do a spin on this - the WI equivalent – with their little WI starring in it. Annie understands instantly, hearing John’s spirit evoked in the endeavour. It’s exactly the kind of off-piste idea he would have loved. The other women are less easy to convince however, especially when Chris lures them up the hill under the guise of planting John’s sunflower seeds and attempts a disastrous demonstration using her own camera.
To make matters worse, Chris’s son Danny, a hard-working lad, has just been made head boy at school but ominously also crossed paths with a young rebellious girl who has turned up. She has caught his eye because she’s interested in him and also was put straight on detention for bringing in drink. This girl, Jenny, taunts him that the new head boy won’t dare bunk off the rest of ‘election day’ on the hill, but his interest coupled with the urging of his best mate Tommo means Danny arrives in this secluded hilltop just in time to see his mother disrobing herself for a photo. Not only that, Marie turns up at the same time to help plant seedlings. And to cap it all, we find out that this rebellious Jenny is in fact her daughter.
Danny is now in danger of being lured off piste. Jenny’s rebellious stance against her mother suddenly seems a very attractive path to him. Chris sees none of the looming problem, fixated with trying to talk the other girls into her calendar idea. She and Annie enlist Lawrence, the porter who used to push John round in the hospital and who John had discovered to be a talented photographer. Celia, the blousey ex-air hostess confesses she has had some plastic surgery, but even THAT wouldn’t make her do this calendar as it might socially compromise her husband, captain of the golf club. Cora is hesitant as a single mum. The first to show any signs of coming on board is the old ex-schoolteacher Jesse who at this point in her life is trying to resist doing what age expects of her. Ruth, put-upon wife of a philanderer, flees the scene in fear only to run into Marie who storms the secret meeting and vows to make it impossible for Chris to besmirch the name of her WI by petitioning national conference. Chris has a shouting match with her and goes home only to find that Marie’s accusations are grounded – her son indeed seems to be being affected by her calendar. He has been found drunk at school and stripped of his post of head boy, something the rebellious Chris held very dear.
Chris, lost and shocked, tells Annie she is going to have to pull out of doing the calendar, which throws Annie totally as she has always relied on Chris to drive things. They have their first real row in forty years of friendship. However following this Annie doesn’t want to let John’s idea go, and rallies herself to take the wheel. She goes to London with the other girls to try and counter Marie at National Conference. Her passionate speech is derailed by grief but at the last moment she is rescued by Chris who was encouraged by husband Rod to come down. He said she needed to follow her rebellious heart rather than be reined back by any potential embarrassment she might cause her son. The little WI storm the conference and win their permission to create an alternative calendar, en route enthralling Marie’s daughter who was dragged along to see ‘the kind of woman she should aim at being’. She has done. And it’s Chris. Ruth is the only one missing, at home alone as usual waiting for her philandering husband. We find she drinks a little each night to help ease the pain.
The night of the calendar shoot is a growing triumph. Initially hesitant women increase in confidence, beat their demons and produce poses which echo their own personal victories in just being here. Marie’s daughter decamps to help with props, Ruth defies her husband to turn up and even Danny comes to help, to match Jenny’s unpredictability.
Several months later, a settee is delivered to the W.I Hall for them all be photographed sitting upon. The calendar has raised millions, catching the public imagination. It has solved issues of confidence in the girls personal lives, brought Danny and Jenny together and even healed some bridges between Marie and her ever-rebellious adversary Chris. But more than that is has left the legacy of a settee in John’s name in a hospital wing also in John’s name, and a hill which, thanks to the seeds he sowed, is now a sea of sunflowers.
1 Teenage Girl
2 Teenage Boys
Cora, late 30s, early 40s
Marie, late 40s, early 50s
Lawrence, late 20s, early 30s
Miss Wilson (tea), 30s-50s
Miss Wilson (coffee), 30s-50s
Brenda Hulse/Lady Cravenshire, 60s