Ian Soutar talks to Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy about adapting the The Full Monty into a play for Sheffield Theatres
SOON after starting work on adapting his screenplay of The Full Monty for the stage, Simon Beaufoy received a letter from the lawyers representing the producers of the American musical based on the film.
“They warned me they would be watching very closely to see that I didn’t copy anything from their show,” he says. “I thought, what a cheek, you’re talking about stuff you nicked from me.”
This was one of the reasons he was keen to do the play which will premiere at the Lyceum in February.
“The film got turned into a musical and they set it in Buffalo and I felt hijacked in that rather colonial way. It seemed a betryal of what we wanted to make it about. I never saw it because I was so upset about the whole thing.
Beaufoy is from Keighley but knew Sheffield well when he came to write the original screenplay about redundant steelworks driven to become male strippers.
“It was based very largely on my visits to a girlfriend who was in hospital here and I had a lot of time on my own and didn’t know anybody,” he recalls. “I was struck by how people were friendly and kind and open in a way I hadn’t come across before. They were also very funny in that Yorkshire way which I knew of old but in a different way from what I was used to.
“I became very fond of the place and was upset about what was happening to it at that time. There was a weird feeling of shock and people were walking around with nothing to do.
“People were being asked to evolve in a way they weren’t prepared for. Generations of people had worked in the steel industry and it never occurred to anyone to think that would not go on forever. “Very quickly heavy industry collapsed and nothing replaced it and these people were left beached with no idea how to deal with it. Today’s workforce are much more fluid. The notion of something being women’s work, there’s no such thing nowadays. The idea of a bloke coming down from a crane at Meadowhall and stacking shelves in a store was inconceivable.”
The play will recapture those days. “We had a lot of discussion on whether it should be updated and be set now but the sexual politics of the world has changed,” continues Beaufoy. “But otherwise not much else has. That feeling of hopelessness has returned. That was a big factor in doing it. It felt the right time to revisit it. We all say the world has changed but it hasn’t for those kind of people, the blue collar employees. There are people struggling to put food on the table.
“There are more subtle areas of unemployment. It strips away men’s self-respect if they can’t work and they feel a sense of uselessness. It’s the same now essentially as it was then. The people making decisions don’t care, well it’s more that they can’t see. It’s not so much they don’t care it’s that Sheffield is not on their radar from Chipping Norton.”
For Beaufoy, returning to The Full Monty has taken him down memory lane. “It’s all coming back because so much of the story is autobiographical even though it’s about a different bunch of blokes from me,” he says. “When I turned up on day one I did wonder whether the people of Sheffield were still so open and welcoming. The minute we got on a bus and the driver began talking to people I knew it hadn’t changed.
“What I love about the film was so much of it was about me and this place, a real place and real people as opposed to someone saying we will make more money if we go and set it in America. It’s the same with the play, there are no stars, it’s a northern cast.”
Adapting the film into a play has proved a challenge, he admits. “I made the mistake that’s got me in trouble before. I’ve written 15 films, so how hard can it be? I should have known better. Adapting a book is a similar process. You cannot transfer the whole scenario. It’s been a steep learning curve. When I delivered the first draft to the producer he said, ‘it’s very good but now can I tell you how to write a play’. What I had delivered was a film. I love the stage but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
As for the staging, he says: “It’s all set in a steelworks and almost all the play happens within that, apart from a few moments when people come on with a few boards and create the job centre or something. Very early on I began collaborating the designer, Rob Jones who’s worked at the Met in New York.
“The other day we took the cast on a little drive around Sheffield and went past Forgemaster and the doors were open and they could see how much it looked like our set.”
Did Beaufoy have any misgivings about returning to a previous work? “I am fond of it as a piece of work and, of course, it was my first film.,” he says. “For a long time the bit in the middle between my first and last name said Full Monty but now it’s Slumdog Millionaire” (for which he won an Oscar).
“None of us knew what we were doing and I think there was a lot of luck involved. It’s been nice to go back to it and tighten it up and I have a lot more craft skills now and I am hoping it will be even better.”
Current projects include a film on the Olympic rivalry between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. “I thought it might be something they would only be interested in 2012 but I’m glad to say that hasn’t happened,” he reports. “It’s a great story about two people at polar ends of the social spectrum, the working class kid and the golden boy, and each won the event the other was expected to. It’s a great piece of drama.” He’s also adapting Sharp Teeth, a novel in verse about members of a Los Angeles gang who turn into werewolves.
The success of The Full Monty came out of the blue. “It was one of those weird things which we never anticipated,” says Beaufoy. “It came out at just the right moment and captured a need in the audience to be able to express joy in adversity. It came out in the UK the week after the death of Princess Diana and we all thought that would kill the chances of the film. At the time a friend of mine was producing the film, Mrs Brown, and I thought how unfair it was that they had a film about royalty at the time. She was much more experienced than I was and said don’t you be so sure. And she was right, the Full Monty was exactly what everyone needed.
“It was the same thing with Slumdog Millionaire. In America it was the time Obama was being elected to the presidency and it seemed the people were much more open to something new, a film about India with people dancing around in a funny way.”
The Full Monty is at the Lyceum Theatre from February 2-23 and then goes on tour until May.