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‘Blazing A Trail’ – Lynda Harrison

‘Blazing a trail’ is what we, Mandy & the Girlfriends, have been told we are responsible for. That, for me, conjures up images of warrior women wearing helmets sprouting horns, on their heads – and Madonna type brassieres protecting their bosoms; clearing a way through tough undergrowth with scythes and swords; to allow the next generation an easier route. I think to be fair, we saw ourselves more, as ‘trundling a trail’ wearing pink towelling dressing gowns, rollers in our hair and pushing along a lawnmower.
Back in the sixties we never regarded ourselves as anything special. We were repeatedly put down by our male counterparts who referred to us as ‘a novelty’ and we didn’t argue. We knew our place!

It wasn’t until eight years ago in 2010 when first year PhD student Sini Timonen approached us; she was working on a research project titled ‘A Musicological Ethnography of Female Popular Musicians in England 1962 – 1971. This was the first time in forty years we had been told our story was special enough to be worthy of documentation; and so it was that ‘Mandy and the Girlfriends’ came to be featured largely in the last chapter of Sini’s doctoral thesis.
It was through a developing relationship with Sini that Merle and Maggie became inspired to write a book of their own. It’s Different for Girls’ was published in 2013, telling the story of young teenaged girls working in, what was then predominantly a man’s world. The ‘dreams come true’, ‘hopes dashed’, struggles, laughter and tears; are all told from a female perspective, highlighting a camaraderie that was to last a life-time.
Fast forward three years and Merle and Maggie’s book had found its way into the hands Hull Director Andy Pearson. At around the same time a collective of young women were forming their own theatre company, ‘She Productions’, based at Beverley’s East Riding Theatre. The book was passed on to them with the recommendation that “it could be devised into a musical”?

A meeting was arranged between ‘She Productions’ and ‘The Girlfriends’ (Throughout the ensuing years Mandy had never kept in touch with any of us; she’d made a new life and career for herself abroad. We learned that, having left the past behind, she was happy for it to stay that way).
The meeting could perhaps better be described as a ‘soiree’; there was quite a lot of ‘wine quaffing’ going on; and while it does help with the quality of congeniality around a table, it’s effects can lead to a tendency for everyone to talk at the same time; and when conversations are being recorded for research purposes this isn’t very helpful. Nevertheless the volume would continue to rise. Old, stained, dog-eared photographs were pulled like magician’s flowers from worn carrier bags and passed around the table amidst ‘ooh’s’ and ‘aaah’s’, but thankfully the words; “god you’ve aged” never spoken! In an eagerness for one to put the other right over a memory that didn’t quite match with their own, we became childishly unruly; yet, there was a sense our noisy, nostalgic, often revelational recollections were fuelling Annie, Alice and Rachel’s progressive forward thinking. We continued our tirade and it began to look remarkably like we were headed for immortality. . ?
“You really are going to make a musical about us?”
“Yes”
“But can you play, drums and bass etc.?”
“We’re going to learn from scratch, the same as you did”.
“No!”
“Yes . .!”

There were further meetings to cogitate over some finer details, significantly the relationship between ‘The Girlfriends’ and Mandy Smith and her family, who were the chiefs and top-dogs of the whole outfit. We had always accepted our relationship with ‘the Smiths’ as a ‘them and us’ situation and Dennis Smith (Mandy’s brother; our manager) later confirmed that this was indeed true. He was invited to meet with us all at The ERT Theatre and he agreed to come. It was there that he revealed there were many other issues all those years ago, that we were never made aware of; problems and responsibilities that they as a family had shouldered and protected us from. We were only sixteen years old!

Photo shoots followed; editorials for September’s edition of The Journal; a show-reel promoting the musical and a spot on BBC’s ‘Look North’. For us this was as near to the ‘heady heights of stardom’ as poor old biddies ever get!

It’s Wednesday 6th September 2017 and it’s preview night for ‘It’s Different for Girls’. We are all there, me, Karen, Lesley, Hilary and Merle but sadly Maggie’s poor health prevented her from being present. We seated ourselves among a packed expectant audience. Waves of nervousness mixed with excitement come and go – and that’s just us; goodness knows how the girl’s back-stage are feeling? There are different theories on how to deal with pre-performance nerves; I believe that you learn to live with them, they never go away.
Lights-up. Hush! Sindy enters, she places a vinyl LP on the turntable. Betsy’s foot-peddle hits the bass drum, her sticks thwack the snare. Vicky’s fingers dance over black and white keys, Mitzi joins in thumb-plucking strings, back-bone to the beat. Sindy and Poppet begin to sing . . . We watch, our attention completely held. Is this is our story unfolding before our eyes? We are enveloped in the atmosphere of colour and light and music. It entices our senses into a realisation that this indeed is our anthem being sung. Five decades fade away as we concede that the dream we shared over fifty years ago really did come true! We indulge ourselves and bask in all its glory. It’s nineteen sixty five and we are all sixteen again! How could we have envisaged what was to follow?

The next day, September 7th and Geri Horner (Halliwell) is coming to Beverley to interview ‘The Girlfriends’! When we first got ‘drift’ of this news we thought it had to be a wind-up? But it turned out that The BBC’s ‘One Show’ wanted to do an article on 1960’s all-female bands. Yes the BBC. Yes ‘The One Show’. Be still my palpitating heart!

The Spice Girls had formed in 1994 – thirty years after Mandy and the Girlfriends! They established themselves as a global phenomenon being among the highest profile acts in 1990’s British popular culture.
Geri (Ginger Spice) was to interview us about our story and was being helicoptered in to spend the day with us at the theatre! She landed at 9am. At Beverley’s Racecourse where a car was waiting ready to chauffer her to us. She was immediately charming and friendly and put us all at our ease, all the time showing a genuine interest in each of us as individuals. Geri was also a skilled interviewer and we were impressed with the way she delivered her questions to us.
During pauses in filming, Geri’s make-up artist would bound onto the ‘set’ to replenish her make-up and tease her hair, this happened quite often! Later when we realised that we’d all latched on to this; we saw its funny side. It was blatantly obvious to everyone around that we were the ones in dire need of all the help we could get, yet we sat around quietly, like elderly, poor relations, a bit worn at the edges, looking slightly bedraggled. It was funny!
Ultimately we joined Geri (or was it Geri that joined us?) on stage. ‘Geri and The Girlfriends’ performed ‘Dancing in the Street’. A day to remember! On 18th October 2017 Geri Halliwell along with ‘The Girlfriends and ‘The She’s’ appeared on the BBC’s ‘The One Show’.

The musical ‘It’s Different for Girls’ completed a successful run at The East Riding Theatre Beverley, having played to packed houses each night. Its success has led to this up-coming tour, an incredible achievement by She Productions. A close friendship developed between ‘The Girlfriends’ and Annie and Alice and Rachel during the process of devising this musical; and this year ‘The Girlfriends’ were invited to be patrons of ‘She Productions’. We were proud to accept.

Significantly this year, we will all have turned seventy years old; that is apart from Merle who is the baby and has a couple more years to go! We continue to ask ourselves, “How did we get here?”
‘The She’s’, by continuing to tell our story are bringing alive a small compartmentalised history; giving it a credence that we, purely because of them, now feel justified to embrace. Of course there will always be the romantic notion that in the sixties we emerged like butterflies from repressed grey backgrounds and fluttered our way into a brand new golden era; but in 1965 there was a sexual revolution happening and we were young teenage girls; not all would experience carefree flight. It was different for girls.

Lynda Harrison.