The Full Monty phenomenon... 20 years on

How did this tiny British film about male strippers take on the world? And does it stand up 20 years later?

The Full Monty (1997)

The Full Monty might be the unlikeliest runaway success story in British cinema history. Two decades on, this Sheffield-set tale of unemployed former steel workers turned amateur strippers remains a briskly paced, bittersweet, gently amusing watch. However, I can’t shake the feeling that someone encountering it for the first time today would be a little baffled by the fact that it dethroned Jurassic Park (1993) to become, for a short while at least, the UK’s highest-grossing film of all time. Perhaps even more of a head-scratcher is how this unassuming little comedy about working-class life, with no major stars, a first-time director and a title that was essentially meaningless outside of Britain, became a major international hit and Oscar winner.

The Full Monty (1997)

Making it even harder to wrap one’s head around all this is the fact that its critical standing and broader cultural cachet seem to have diminished considerably in recent years. In 2016, Time Out polled industry figures to determine the 100 best British films of all time, and The Full Monty was nowhere to be seen – in contrast to a 1999 BFI poll, where it came in at number 25. In 2015, a West End stage production, adapted by the film’s writer, Simon Beaufoy, was abruptly axed just five weeks into its run due to poor sales. And earlier this year, star Robert Carlyle admitted that at the time he “thought it was a load of fucking pish”, and revealed that distributor Fox Searchlight was ready to send it straight to video after watching an initial cut.

And yet, the film clearly retains a special place in the hearts of filmgoers, particularly in the UK. Just last month, Vue surveyed members of the public on their all-time favourite British films, and The Full Monty claimed the number two spot, just pipped to pole position by The Italian Job. So how did director Peter Cattaneo manage to strike such a crowd-pleasing chord with his scrappy debut feature?

For starters, it’s a classic inspirational rags-to-riches tale. Gaz (Carlyle), a down-on-his-luck divorcee, faces being cut off from his son Nathan (William Snape) for failing to keep up with child support payments. With seemingly no prospect of gainful employment, he formulates a get-rich-quick scheme inspired by the success of a local Chippendales show. Assisted by his long-suffering sidekick, Dave (Mark Addy), Gaz assembles a motley crew of similarly flat-broke acquaintances, with the modest but nevertheless daunting goal of performing a full-frontal striptease at a local club.

At its core, it’s the story of an unglamorous underdog overcoming considerable odds, and at times crippling self-doubt, to turn his life around and achieve something remarkable. This is a tried and tested formula that Beaufoy would riff on, to Oscar-winning effect, in his screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and which has underpinned all manner of other major home-grown hits, from Billy Elliot (2000) to the Harry Potter series.

Trainspotting (1996)

Cattaneo’s film landed relatively hot on the heels of two other British blockbusters – Four Weddings and Funeral (1994) and Trainspotting (1996). But whereas these both explore life on the extreme fringes of society – criminal junkies on one side, over-privileged toffs on the other – The Full Monty offers a far more grounded and widely relatable depiction of the country and its people. It also hits a sweet spot between its predecessors tonally, with a touch of Four Weddings’ witty verbal sparring and character-driven comedy, and a smidgen of Trainspotting’s grit and anger (in addition, of course, to the presence of Carlyle, one of its foul-mouthed breakout stars).

Trainspotting also demonstrated that a well-curated pop soundtrack can nudge strong scenes towards something approaching iconic. Cattaneo and co appeared to have been taking notes, choreographing key sequences to 1970s disco earworms, to instantly memorable effect. The film’s understated charm is perfectly encapsulated by the sight of the gang dancing in a dole queue to Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ – a scene that took front and centre in the original American trailer, and which became so swiftly embedded in popular culture that Prince Charles was invited to re-enact it as part of a charity event during a visit to Sheffield in 1998.

While we’re on the subject of royalty, it would be remiss to ignore the fact that the film was released in the UK on 29 August 1997, just two days before Princess Diana’s death. While it’s impossible to truly gauge whether this had any impact on its subsequent record-breaking haul, pundits have noted that The Full Monty reached audiences precisely at a time when feel-good home-grown entertainment may have seemed particularly appealing.

But as far as I’m concerned, the ace up its sleeve is the way in which it deftly fuses elements of two great British exports: the kitchen sink drama and the TV sitcom. Impressively, it broaches all manner of potent issues – unemployment, urban degeneration, mental health, fragile masculinity, fathers’ rights, impotence (both literal and figurative), homosexuality – over the course of its svelte 91-minute running time.

The Full Monty (1997)

Far from being an earnest Loachian lament for a broken Britain, however, the film is suffused with a kind of cautious optimism, and finds earthy humour in unexpected places, like during a suicide attempt and a funeral. There are admittedly moments when the boys’ banter veers perilously close to the inanity of ‘When the Whistle Blows’, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s spot-on parody of broad-strokes BBC comedy in Extras. But when it’s firing on all cylinders, Beaufoy’s dialogue crackles with bawdy energy, and the film blends pathos and knockabout humour in a manner that bears comparison with TV greats such as Only Fools and Horses. Indeed, it emerged several years ago that the first choice for the role of Gaz was Nicholas Lyndhurst, as odd as that might seem now.

The Full Monty (1997)

As for its overseas success, a New York Times article from September 1997 about the film’s stateside rollout makes it all sound so simple. After a well-received Sundance premiere, extremely positive test screenings in both London and LA alerted Fox to the fact that they might have a major hit on their hands. Word-of-mouth buzz was built by a series of free screenings targeted mainly at women, and supported in part through a head-scratching cross-promotional partnership with luxury retailer Ralph Lauren.

A virtue was made of the fact that the title might sound mysterious to those not versed in British slang, with teaser ads asking “What is The Full Monty?” appearing in major newspapers. David Dinerstein, senior vice president of marketing at Fox Searchlight at the time, noted the film’s ability to play to an extremely broad crowd: “We realised the audience was not just female but the young date crowd and senior citizens.”

All of this added up to impressive US box office takings of $46m, and a total global haul of $258m, making it 1997’s tenth highest grossing film worldwide. Not bad returns on a $3.5m budget. As such, whatever your feelings about the film itself may be, The Full Monty remains an unexpected British triumph worth commemorating.

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