The Full Monty: Twenty years on

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In August 1997 a little British film became an international hit. Twenty years on, Daniel Dylan Wray takes a tour around the Sheffield locations which provided the backdrop for The Full Monty. Pictures by Scott Merrylees.

Over the years Sheffield has been synonymous with many things. First there was its steel and coal industries, then there is its music and its two football clubs.

However, in the last 20 years the single defining image of Steel City may be the naked rears of six middle-aged men. In the summer of 1997, The Full Monty was released and this tale of a group of out of work steel workers stripping to make money and rebuild their self esteem seemed destined to be nothing more than a charming, idiosyncratic and quintessentially British film.

Instead it became a commercial smash, made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office and beat the likes of Titanic and LA Confidential to win the best film at the Bafta Awards. It also picked up four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay and made screenwriter Simon Beaufoy a man in demand.

Whilst the likes of Robert Carlyle and Mark Addy were the film’s stars, Sheffield also played a key supporting role. Its hills, roads, factories, shops and bus stops provided the backdrop to many memorable scenes, charting a city and a people who had, momentarily at least, been robbed of their purpose.

This was a Sheffield of derelict factories, a city where the job centres had more customers than the shops and of tired working men’s clubs. So what remains of the places captured in The Full Monty?

First, that dole queue scene in which the characters line up to sign on in between rehearsing their dance routine. Unable to contain themselves when Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff comes on, they drop their shoulders and thrust their hips with perfect synchronicity as bemused strangers look on. The exterior shot was of a real job centre, on West Street in the city centre.

However, the internal shots were filmed elsewhere, in Burton Street, near Hillsborough, at the old Langsett School. Today it is the Burton Street Foundation, a centre for adults with learning disabilities and its senior manager, Andy Beeston, remembers the impact the film had.

“After the film, for two years, coach tours operated and we were on the route. It wasn’t possible to show them the rooms as they were being used all the time but the interest was phenomenal. During the past 20 years, we have had hundreds of people call in and ask us to see the rooms.”

On the strength of the film, Prince Charles came to open the foundation in 1998 and even, rather awkwardly, tried to recreate the famous dance scene with the actor Hugo Speer. Inside the building today are various nods to the on-screen moment, such as a framed still from that scene hung on the wall. Beeston also has a copy of the original script with handwritten alterations from Keighley-born Beaufoy. There’s also the call sheet for the ballroom dancing scene, in which the group of laid-off steelworkers spot that their ex-foreman, Gerald, is a talented ballroom dancer and can perhaps teach them to dance, which was also filmed in the same building but in a different room from the job club scenes.

An early scene in which Carlyle’s Gaz finds himself stood on top of a sinking car, after the attempted theft of a rusty girder goes awry, was shot on Bacon Lane, in the Attercliffe area. Today this section of the Sheffield & Tinsley Canal is still surrounded by industry, old buildings and factories, and a stroll can be taken along its banks, although it is free from submerged cars these days.

Whilst the film was shot entirely in Sheffield, some of the locations are fictitious and set in the made-up neighbourhood of Milthorpe. So when Gaz and his friends initially see the queue of excitable women lined up for the Chippendale-style performance that’s taking place – initially sparking the idea that they could make a penny or two doing the same thing – the club that they are standing outside is in fact a furniture warehouse on Idsworth Road, near Firth Park and the Northern General Hospital.

Fake signs and lights were put up to create the illusion that it was a working men’s club, along with a Stones brewery sign that hung outside. The shots within the club, from the early opening scenes when the men – along with Gaz’s son Nathan – climb in through the bathroom window to the final scene in which the men perform and, as promised, deliver the Full Monty, was all shot in Shiregreen Working Men’s Club.

The club still stands today and inside the smell of beer loosely hangs in the air, while there are advertisements for bingo nights and turns who perform on the same stage that the cast did 20 years ago. Even the sparkly gold curtains have survived the decades.

Earlier this year ITV ran a programme called The Real Full Monty in which celebrities flung off identical outfits to those worn by the strippers, whilst raising money to fight cancer. Some scenes were shot in the same club on Shiregreen Lane. Another made up location was the steel factory which the group are all laid off from. On screen it’s called Milthorpe Steelworks but the external shots were actually of an old building on Darnall Road that today is a gym.

To illustrate the apparent wage and class divide between where the foreman lived and where the workers lived, the film had Gerald residing in Whirlow Road, in a six-bedroom house in a leafy suburb that in 2012 was on the market for almost £750,000 (although the bright pink walls that featured in the film had since been covered over) while Gaz’s flat, in Regent Court, was in a Brutalist-style block at the other end of the city in Hillsborough. It was in the Whirlow Road property that another memorable scene took place, when debt collectors came around to take the TV off Gerard, only to be greeted by five semi-naked men.

Despite the changes to the city, the locations of The Full Monty are largely much as they were. There aren’t any blue plaques or signs acknowledging the role they played in one of the biggest British films of the 1990s. Instead, these tucked away places are a testament to the location scouts, who in selecting such ordinary and often unspectacular places managed to truly capture the essence of normal life in Sheffield during that period.

The legacy of the film does live on in the city. On Tuesday the Burton Street Foundation is hosting a screening of the film which Simon Beaufoy will introduce. He will take part in a Q&A afterwards and the foundation’s clients are also planning to recreate that infamous dance scene – hopefully with more grace and rhythm than Prince Charles managed.