‘The Full Monty’ at 25: the story behind the classic British strip-com
The cast of The Full Monty was nervous, with good reason. Now halfway through the film’s shoot, the time had finally come for them to strip naked on stage for the film’s concluding sequence — all in front of an expectant mob of women, who had been shipped in from nearby Sheffield University for the occasion. Even though it was only 9am, director Peter Cattaneo had come up with a sneaky plan to enhance the crowd’s excitement, too.
“He had the idea of giving them a few drinks, to liven them up and keep them happy,” says John de Borman, the film’s cinematographer. “We needed a huge crowd, but we had such a low budget that we couldn’t afford extras. So we got people in from the university. They became quite raucous. They got a bit pissed.” Even the film’s stars — Robert Carlyle, Mark Addy, Tom Wilkinson, Steve Huison, Paul Barber, and Hugo Speer — were on the booze, to help calm their nerves. “They were all in there with a bottle of scotch, taking little nips,” says Dave Hill, who played Alan, the brash club owner who is delighted that the men have sold out his venue.
“All the actors were backstage getting very, very nervous,” adds de Borman. “They knew that they were actually going to have to expose themselves. They all came up to me and said, ‘You have got one fucking go! I’m not going to do it more than once in front of all those women that are going doolally at the front.’”
The Full Monty was a phenomenon when it was released 25 years ago. Set in Sheffield, the film’s events are set in motion when unemployed Gaz (played by Robert Carlyle) learns that his wife is going to sue him for missing child support payments. Desperate for money, it’s after seeing the huge popularity of a chippendales concert that Gaz convinces his best friend Dave (Addy) to create their own male strip-tease act, recruiting four other unemployed men (Wilkinson, Huison, Barber, and Speer). The group have just a few weeks to get ready, both mentally and physically, to strip completely naked.
Despite the cast’s pleas to capture the final striptease in one go, Peter Cattaneo had other ideas. In order to capture the anxiety and excitement of their performance, he had planned so many angles and shots that the actors had to repeatedly enact the striptease for the increasingly intoxicated throng — which just got the crowd even more excited. “We had to do the build up to the final shot over and over and over again,” says Cattaneo. “They were baying for blood by the end of it. We kept treating it like a striptease; we’d always just stop before the thongs came off. Then we did the final shot once and put the camera behind the actors.”
“[Robert Carlyle] was there for a good 60 seconds, stark naked in front of 800 women”
— John de Borman, The Full Monty cinematographer
As soon as the shot was captured, Addy, Wilkinson, Huison, Barber, and Speer all ran off the stage. Carlyle, though, had other ideas. He stood there proud in his birthday suit. “He was there for a good 60 seconds, stark naked in front of 800 women. Then he went off stage very slowly,” remembers de Borman. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. That was incredible.’ I was so impressed.”
The shot that they worked so hard to capture quickly became one of the most iconic in the history of the British film industry. That’s what happens when your low budget, £3 million black comedy becomes such a smash-hit that it grosses over £200 million at the worldwide box office. The Full Monty even broke America, making over £38 million there alone.
The Full Monty’s success was all the more remarkable when you consider how different it was to other British films that had thrived in the States over the previous years. The likes of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sense and Sensibility, and The Madness of King George were either set in or around London, were romantic comedies, or were period films. It was the success of Trainspotting, released 12 months earlier, that helped to pave the way for The Full Monty. That film presented a complex yet exciting view of modern British life from the point of view of heroin addicts, but its much darker style and content (as well as the fact that its Scottish accents needed to subtitled for American audiences) meant that it was grossed a comparatively lower £13.6 million ($16.4 million) in the US.
The Full Monty’s northern voices proved to be a little more digestible for American audiences. The themes in Simon Beaufoy’s script proved to be more palatable, too, even though some of them were still considered taboo at the time. The way that The Full Monty explored issues of unemployment, fathers’ right, body image, suicide, masculinity, the wealth gap, impotence, homosexuality, and the changing landscape of the industrial city post-Thatchercism, also helped to make it feel unique and relevant.
“It’s The Full Monty’s mixing of these representational elements, in a particular accessible genre package, which makes it significant,” says Claire Monk, Professor of Film & Film Culture at De Montfort University. “If we were to look at each representational element of the film individually, some are innovative, such as a popular film discussing male body-image issues and depression. Others — the inclusion/representation of the gay and Black British characters — reflect the film’s ethos of warm inclusivity.”
It wasn’t Beaufoy who initially came up with The Full Monty, though. Instead, it emerged when producer Uberto Pasolini was having a meeting with a friend, who pitched him several movie ideas. “One of them involved stripper-grams. It wasn’t that interesting, as it involved drug smuggling and other strange things. But I did like the idea of people who take their clothes off for money,” says Pasolini. What would soon become The Full Monty really started to take shape a few days later, when Pasolini watched the 1991 Ken Loach film Riff-Raff. It also just so happened to star Carlyle, this time as an ex-convict who works on a building site for luxury apartments, which he burns down at the end.
“I tried to wonder what the characters would do at the end of that movie for money. I put the two ideas together. For a few days I literally thought of asking Ken Loach to get involved,” continues Pasolini. “But I wanted to make it more comedic and something that the working class would go and see. I love Ken’s movies. He is a genius. But for some strange reason his moves are loved more by French filmgoers than the British public.” So Pasolini approached Simon Nye, the creator of the sitcom Men Behaving Badly, to be the film’s writer. “He wasn’t quite interested. Maybe I gave him too many precise ideas.” Nye’s agent also represented Beaufoy, who he then suggested to Pasolini. “He sent me Simon’s script The Tower Men. It was wonderful. Especially the way that he wrote relationships between a group of disparate men. Then, when I met him, he immediately knew what I wanted to do.”
“For a few days I literally thought of asking Ken Loach to get involved. But I wanted to make it more comedic”
— Uberto Pasolini, The Full Monty producer
Beaufoy’s only suggestion was to move the location from South Wales. Pasolini had been in the region when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed its mines, destroying its communities and economy. “He said to me, ‘I don’t know anything about Wales or mines. But I’m from Yorkshire. I know about steel work.’” Beaufoy’s first draft of the script immediately impressed the producer. “My creative contribution really stopped at having the idea and imagining a film that would play well with a wide public,” insists Pasolini. “The idea to explore masculinity and the changing role of men in society was all very much Simon.”
Pasolini found his director for The Full Monty at the 1995 Edinburgh International Film Festival, where Cattaneo’s TV movie Loved Up, starring Lena Headey and Ian Hart, premiered. “It was so well done and so truthful. The comedy came from real situations,” explains Pasolini. As he read Beaufoy’s script, Peter Cattaneo (who had previously made a short film in Sheffield) was also struck by its exploration of masculinity, as well as just how funny and touching it was. “I just thought this could be amazing,” says Cattaneo. “It was just a really good read and a very lean script.”
While Pasolini now had a script and a director, he still didn’t have a budget for the production. Initially Film Four had provided funding for Beaufoy to write the script, but they stopped short of actually making The Full Monty. Pasolini had a number of conversations with Miramax, during which time its co-founder and co-chairman Harvey Weinstein told him, “This is the funniest fucking script I’ve ever read. Let’s make it.” Unfortunately, they wanted to hire a different director and more recognisable actors. “I had my director and I felt that bigger names wasn’t really the way to go,” says Pasolini. “It would have endangered the truthfulness and believability of the situation.”
Ultimately, Miramax passed on The Full Monty. Instead, they made Brassed Off, an equally delightful comedy that also explores working class issues in post-industrial Britain. Starring Ewan McGregor and Pete Poselthwaite, it focuses on a colliery brass band rather than wannabe strippers, and grossed £3 million worldwide. “There was a story someone told me that Harvey Weinstein once said, ‘I had two scripts about unemployed British guys. One where they take their clothes off. One where they blow fucking trumpets. I chose the trumpet one.’ The stripping thing just gave us this kind of iconic film,” believes Cattaneo.
It was at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival where real progress was finally made with The Full Monty’s funding. Following a screening of Loved Up, Cattaneo was approached by Fox Searchlight. “They said, ‘We’d love to work with you on something.’ I’d had the script for The Full Monty in my bag for four months.” Just three months later, in April 1996, production was underway.
In the weeks before, Cattaneo had assembled his cast, making sure that all looked psychically different. “I hate ensembles where they’re all the same. I knew they all had to be identifiable instantly, because they’re not on screen that long.” They’d even had time to work on some dance routines, which helped the actors to bond. “They just worked incredibly well together. It was hilarious. On set we’d be laughing our heads off until the end of the day,” says de Borman. “Peter was very gentle. He didn’t really force anything. Lots of little details came from their natural reactions.”
Production was still difficult, though. “We were doing 18-hour days, which is basically two days in one. We were also working six days a week. It was exhausting,” says de Borman. Pasolini was so thankful for their effort, though, he vowed to share his profits with the crew if the film was a success, a promise he fulfilled once The Full Monty did just that. “We got 90 grand each,” says de Borman. “That paid for my kids’ schooling. No one knew it was going to do so well. We had a nice feeling about it. It was a charming film. But lots of charming films don’t do well. We thought it might go straight to television.”
Once filming was complete, Cattaneo had six weeks to compile his edit with David Freeman. “People liked it. But it wasn’t ready. It didn’t have a score,” admits Cattaneo. “We showed it to the studio and some of them were lukewarm on it.” After Freeman had to leave for another project, Nick Moore was brought on by Pasolini to smooth out the film even further. “It was my first gig as an editor,” says Moore, who’d previously worked with Pasolini when he was an assistant editor for Jim Clark on Memphis Belle and Meeting Venus. “I had some ideas on how to take the edit further,” adds Pasolini, “so I asked Nick to join us and he contributed his great comedy timing.” With all three of them working on the edit together, Moore admits that things did get “tricky”, though is quick to add, “but that’s the creative process. It gets tricky, because that’s the nature of it.”
“We had so little money. When we were trying out music, the assistant had to keep going to the HMV on Oxford Street to exchange the CD with the receipt for a different one. We spent weeks spending the same £15 over and over again”
— Nick Moore, The Full Monty editor
Their budget had now almost completely run out, too. “We had so little money,” says Moore. “When we were trying out music, the assistant had to keep going to the HMV on Oxford Street to exchange the CD with the receipt for a different one. We spent weeks spending the same £15 over and over again. We just didn’t have the money to spare.”
Anne Dudley, The Full Monty’s composer and formerly a member of the pioneering synth-pop group the Art of Noise, was able to secure a favour that would soon aid The Full Monty’s release. “She had worked with Tom Jones,” Pasolini recalls. “We were able to rope him into recording a cover version of ‘Leave Your Hat On’. He was lovely. So generous. Very patient. I was asking him for take after take.”
Then, the mood started to change around the film. Those involved first started to suspect The Full Monty might not just work, but could actually be a success, when its preview screenings in Wimbledon and Beverly Hills both scored incredibly high numbers.
Those in attendance are asked to complete a questionnaire describing the film as either excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor. They also answer follow up questions, then the studio turns the data into a number out of 100.
“In Wimbledon it scored in the 80s. We were like, ‘Oh shit. This is really good’,” says Moore. “Then in Beverly Hills, people were queueing up on a Sunday morning. They were fairly well dressed and reading books. Then we scored a 90. I was like, ‘Oh my God, it appeals to everybody.’”
A provocative marketing campaign was soon launched, where each character would have fewer clothes on in posters. “Someone told me that they gave out free screenings to local hairdressers,” suggests de Borman, a story that Moore had also heard. “The idea was that hairdressers speak to 10 people a day and they’ll always tell their customers if they saw a funny film the night before. I don’t know if it’s true or not.”
Then, just two days after The Full Monty’s release, Princess Diana died. Whether or not The Full Monty provided much needed comfort to audiences during this time is up for debate, but it still continued to thrive at the box office. “I think everybody needed cheering up,” says Moore. “It was like a release.”
“People talk about the death of Princess Diana being a contributing factor,” adds Cattaneo, “and New Labour making it culturally timely, too. But I also just think the film has got a really good ending. It’s so electric and uplifting.”
“It was a period where people were losing similar jobs across the world. I made Hamlet with Sam Shepard. He said, ‘Every one of those guys lived in my town’”
— John de Borman, The Full Monty cinematographer
“It’s fundamentally optimistic,” adds Monk. “I think it was probably the first prominent film to show men coming together, forming bonds and actually forming a support group, and particularly unique in addressing this seriously within a lighthearted comedic framework.”
By the end of its theatrical run, The Full Monty was the highest grossing film in UK history, until Titanic beat it just a few months later. Even more impressive, though, was that it earned four Academy Award nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score categories, picking up the gong for the latter. “Simon Beaufoy was robbed,” insists Pasolini.
The Full Monty was turned into a musical in 2000, a play in 2013, and now, over 25 years after its release, a limited television series, starring Carlyle, Wilkinson, Addy, et al, is in production for Disney+.
“I live in France. They all remember it,” says John de Borman. “So do the Japanese and Americans. It was a period where people were losing similar jobs across the world. I made Hamlet with Sam Shepard. He came up to me and said, ‘You did The Full Monty, didn’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Every one of those guys lived in my town.’ Everybody could relate to it.”