Women's Institute: It's not all jam and Jerusalem

Posing naked for calendars, indulging in pole-dancing: member of the Women's Institute have come a long way. Now comes the ultimate endorsement - a satire featuring French, Saunders and Lumley. What is going on? Ian Herbert reports
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With a media savvy that the Calendar Girls of nearby Rylstone and District WI would be proud of, the Wythit ladies - whose average age is 32 - will disclose only that the dancing club's location is "some distance north of York" as they have no wish to be followed by photographers.

Welcome to the edgy new world of the Women's Institute, in which young members indulge in parachute-jumping, quad-biking and - if Wythit's chairman has her way - will be at Glastonbury next year on a charabanc-come-recruitment drive. This injection of vigour may come as a disappointment to the latest comedy writers seeking to draw inspiration from images of the blue rinse and twin set brigade.

Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley have started filming a new satire for BBC1 based on the experiences of a WI - or the Women's Guild, as their group is known. Their comedy, Jam and Jerusalem, brings Saunders and Lumley together for the first time since Absolutely Fabulous and Lumley's few words on the subject suggest that pole dancing will not be forming a part of the plot.

"I only have a tiny little role as an old woman in the village where it takes place," she said. "It's a straight-up comedy. Irreverent and very funny."

The National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI), which has not been formally consulted about the programme, has reason to feel some mild apprehension. Its members' last comic reincarnation arrived courtesy of Little Britain, in which they were depicted as projectile-vomiting, homophobic racists, distressed to find that their scones and jams have been made by immigrants and homosexuals.

The 90-year-old institution that the comedy writers are drawing inspiration from certainly has something of an image problem to contend with. The average age of its women remains in the 50 to 60 bracket and its membership - currently 215,000 or so - is falling at between one and two per cent a year.

Little wonder the institute's website is adorned with pictures of young women going white-water rafting and tells the story of a 23-year-old Guernsey member who "may finally dispel the myth of the WI being full of old people and fuddy-duddies." The marketing experts Interbrand recently said that the organisation needed to "turn around what people associate with the Women's Institute or get a new name that is a truer signal of what they do".

The nine-month-old Wythit branch has opted for the former. Its 30 members meet at the local pub, the White Rose ("I knew I'd never get the girls to the village hall," says the founder, Alison Mason) and are proud to be the first branch in the WI's history to meet on a Sunday.

A glance at the branch's first year itinerary indicates that this is not a place for those in search of home-made jam and "100 ways with broccoli". There has already been African singing, a drama workshop and a pretty hairy few hours flying around the treetops on an outward-bound challenge. ("When they heard who we were, they asked me, will you need any help up the ladders?" says Mrs Mason.)

Then came the pole dancing. The concept of "pole pilates" seemed uncomplicated at first but the local paper got wind of the idea and an instructional visit to the Spearmint Rhino lap dancing club in Leeds was cancelled in favour of a Thai cooking evening - just to prevent any embarrassment.

When it came to deciding whether to resurrect the idea, there was Yorkshire pride at stake. "Fulham [another of the WI youth brigade, which meets at Novello's pub opposite Parsons Green Tube station in London, once a month] have done it so we decided that so must we," says Mrs Mason, 39.

This modern reincarnation of the WI has been quietly taking place over a number of years, with Yorkshire at the vanguard with its famous Calendar Girls of 1999. The NFWI cannot quantify what the Ryedale branch's strip routine did for national membership but it was quite substantial - especially when Helen Mirren and Julie Walters put their names up in lights in the 2003 film, based on their story. "Calendar Girls injected not only a sense of fun but showed what women's institutes do for the community," says the NFWI general secretary, Jana Osborne. "People saw that we were a vibrant organisation."

That impression was also enhanced in 2000 when members gave Tony Blair a handbagging at their annual conference, with one of the most memorable slow handclaps of modern times. So much for the image of old biddies in pearls. As Mirren declared in the film: "It's not just a load of middle-aged women standing mysteriously behind fruitcakes you know."

The WI has always had a reputation as a stout campaigner at the vanguard of women's issues. This dates to its work helping facilitate women's suffrage and demanding better pay and conditions for nurses in 1937. It campaigned for equal pay for equal work in 1943, for protection against women suffering domestic violence in 1975, and in 1986 was the first organisation to lobby the Government to tackle the Aids crisis.

More recent projects have included its contribution to a government committee's examination of how to deal with thousands of tons of radioactive nuclear waste, campaigning against human trafficking (for which it has joined forces with Amnesty International and Anti-Slave International) and work on other issues including fair trade, genetically modified food, food labelling and sustainable communities. The federation in Cornwall hit the headlines last month for its campaign to encourage a boycott of out-of-town superstores which are destroying trade at village shops.

Behind much of the effort was its inspirational chairman Barbara Gill who, rather than highlight the WI's more traditional activities, pointed to its campaigning work. The organisation is still mourning Mrs Gill, who died last week.

Of course, most of the women who pay their £21 a year WI subscription have more prosaic thoughts in mind as they pitch up at draughty village halls. At 86, Ann Coupe, twice branch president and a county organiser in Ripon, North Yorkshire, counts as her "proudest achievement" her fight to keep "the little North Bridge post office [in Ripon] open."

She recalls: "We made posters and went around with banners and we eventually won. Now it's the loveliest post office and shop."

The institution is not all nude calendars and energetic activity these days, she says. "Calendar Girls did a lot to give people a rough idea of what we're about, although people aren't as droll as they were in the film - even though we have a number of very clever ladies who have degrees." Country dancing, competitions and "enjoying seeing people" are her reasons for being in the WI.

Keeping people like Mrs Coupe happy while attracting new members is the big challenge. "The membership we attracted in the 1970s when we had 500,000 members is getting elderly," says Jana Osborne. Although that figure has halved in 30 years, the WI attracts 8,000 to 10,000 new members a year - not bad by anyone's standards - and remains the largest women's organisation in the UK.

The NFWI has not always been enamoured by the way television has portrayed its membership. It was the only organisation to lodge an objection to Little Britain, a move which resulted in accusations of over-sensitivity from some commentators. "Our members have a great sense of fun and can laugh at themselves but we objected to any suggestion of racism," says Ms Osborne.

There were some positive signs yesterday that Saunders, Lumley and Co have struck more of a chord, after roping in members of the local WI as extras during filming for the comedy in the Devon village of North Tawton.

The request for help from the ladies was unanticipated but - true to an organisation whose motto is "For Home and Country" - they leapt into action after a ring-around from their president, Claire Weller.

The biggest problem for members during filming appears to have been keeping a straight face - especially during filming for a funeral scene. (The plot of the comedy, to be aired next year, turns on the death of a town's GP, whose widow seeks company by joining the local Women's Guild.)

"We were supposed to look very, very serious but Joanna Lumley was playing the organ very badly," said the local vice-president, Gill Cripps.

"[On another occasion,] a director came up to me and told me 'show some concern. It's not meant to be funny.' I [simply] hadn't realised I was on camera." Marion North, a fellow member, chipped in: "If we can't laugh at ourselves, then it's a great shame really - and I think that's half the fun of it."

Another problem the women knew they might face was long periods of inactivity between scenes - and for this they again proved themselves to be true WI stalwarts. "It was just like another meeting in North Tawton town hall," said Ms Cripps "I was told there was going to be a lot of hanging about. So I took my embroidery along."

A British institution

* The Women's Institute movement in Britain started with a meeting on 11 February 1915, between John Nugent Harris, secretary of the Agricultural Organisations Society (AOS) and a Canadian, Madge Watt. Mrs Watt had been involved with the Women's Institute in British Columbia, and Mr Harris wanted to get women involved in the AOS, formed in 1901.

* On 16 September 1915 the first WI in Britain was set up, in Llanfairpwll, Anglesey. Mrs Watt went on to form more WIs in Wales and then England. There is a debate as to which was the first in England. Singleton, in West Sussex, and Wallisdon, in Dorset, have both claimed to be the first in November 1915. Hamworthy, Dorset, also created a group around December 1915. At the end of 1915 there were six WIs in Britain.

* The first chairman of the Women's Institute Committee, set up by the AOS, was Lady Denman, daughter of Weetman Pearson, an oil magnate and newspaper baron.

* The National Federation of WIs was formed in 1917. Lady Denman was elected chairman, a post she held until 1946. The WI college, opened just after she retired in 1948, was named Denman College, near Oxford, in her honour.

* After "Jerusalem" was sung at the annual meeting in 1924 it became the "institute song".

* This year is the 90th anniversary of the WI in Britain.

* WIs were originally just in rural areas but are now also in towns. Each is self-governing within the WI constitution and rules. There are 215,000 members in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. There are 70 county and island federations, each with a regional office.

Karl Mansfield