Special Report: How cinema classic showed the strength of city’s identity

The Full Monty. Robert Carlyle, Steve Huson, Hugo Speer and Mark Addy.
The Full Monty. Robert Carlyle, Steve Huson, Hugo Speer and Mark Addy.

Lecturer and film studies expert surveys the aftermath of The Full Monty’s success from the vantage point of movie’s 20th anniversary – and argues the comedy helped to revive the UK cinema industry.

On August 29, 1997, The Full Monty was released nationwide.

It is a story of confidence – to strip, and of a city regenerating

It was a year of blockbuster cinematic releases, from Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, to Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith’s first outing as the Men in Black.

Not forgetting the behemoth that was James Cameron’s Titanic, crushing all other competition in its wake, the first film to gross over a billion dollars.

Yet, in the midst of all these gargantuan Hollywood features The Full Monty, made on a meagre budget of $3 million, was more than able to hold its own at the box office.

It tells the story of a group of unemployed Sheffield steelworkers struggling to find any work as the city, once a power house of British industry, is in the grips of deindustrialisation at the hands of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Resorting to desperate measures, the men decide to form a stripping troupe in order to make a living.

As one of the film’s stars, Mark Addy, said: “Who would have thought Americans would have taken to male strippers in Sheffield?”

Certainly no-one expected the film to be the monster hit it became, not even its financier, Fox Searchlight.

Indeed the film was a phenomenal box office success and firmly placed Sheffield on the movie map.

By November 1999, it had become the biggest grossing film ever at the British box office.

What started out as merely a northern comedy, whose development was initially funded by Channel 4, went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

One reason for the success of the film was in part the cathartic release of finally being rid of 18 years of Conservative rule and the confidence that Tony Blair and his New Labour government brought,along with the urban attitude of ‘Cool Britannia’.

The film’s comedic tone seemed to strike a chord with the Great British public, who were now free of the Conservative party.

And the result of those Thatcherite decades was on full view in the film: Sheffield, once one of the mightiest and most important cities of the British Empire, now a city in glorious, crumbling decay.

But The Full Monty wasn’t about wallowing in self-pity. That isn’t the Sheffield way.

Instead, it is a story of confidence: the confidence to strip, the confidence of a Northern city regenerating, the confidence of a Northern city’s self-identity on a global stage with the attention the success of the film brought.

Sheffield and the North developed a confidence to project an image that has blossomed in recent years within wide-stream media, particularly in the form of the Northern, specifically Sheffield accent (think Game of Thrones, with Sean Bean forcing his dialect upon the show).

Fox Searchlight admitted that it took American audiences around 10 minutes to understand the language in The Full Monty, but denied rumours that subtitles were used.

This confidence is fully realised when the soon-to – be Chippendale group is queuing at the Job Centre on West Street.

They’ve been gripped with self-doubt up to this point about whether they have what it takes to pull off (pun intended) the stripping act.

As they stand in the gloomy surrounds of the Job Centre, a radio crackles and announces that the next song is “Donna Summer with Hot Stuff.”

The song was released a month before the 1979 UK general election and the sweeping to power of Margaret Thatcher and the New Right, perhaps harking back to a “glittering” period in Sheffield’s past and a memory of the ability of the city to move.

And these men, who were part of that past and who now stand silently and inactive in the dole queue, are suddenly reawakened and rediscover their own ability to move.

What follows has become an iconic moment in British film history and the most enduring sequence in The Full Monty: as Donna Summer reaches the sexually charged chorus, Gaz looks on at the dole queue to see all five men thrusting their hips to the song.

Of course, it’s a scene I’m sure many can’t help watching with embarrassed glee as they recall seeing Prince Charles awkwardly recreate the scene on a visit to the city in 1998.

The Full Monty sees the main characters rediscover their confidence and it’s a theme that carried through into the British film industry itself at the time, buoyed in the immediate wake of the film’s release after several years of audience and box office decline.

The Full Monty precipitated a renewal in cinema attendance, along with the development of new multiplexes, including the opening of the Virgin Megaplex at Don Valley in 1998.

Richard Branson had chosen to make the site the centrepiece of his cinema chain, creating one of the largest and busiest cinemas in the UK.

This is not to say The Full Monty single-handedly led to what has undoubtedly been a renaissance in Sheffield’s prospects in the 21st century.

But it signalled that the Sheffield identity was stronger than ever, spurred on by its creative and industrial spirit.

‘Redevelopment and culture has brought changes’

Many will look back with nostalgia at the way Sheffield has changed in the 20 years since the film’s release, writes James Fenwick.

The Heart of the City redevelopment strategy that started in the mid-1990s has radically changed the city centre and is still ongoing. Sheffield has also become a cultural hotspot in the UK, with the likes of the Sheffield Doc/Fest now a major event in the UK’s film calendar, while the Snooker World Championships is an occasion when the city takes part in an annual celebration of Sheffield heritage.

For those who doubt the confidence and pride that resides in Sheffield, I urge them to watch the touching tribute Steve Davis paid to the city on the BBC this year.

The six-time snooker champion went back to the Crucible to mark 40 years of the tournament, proving that it really is a city on the move once more.