When the film of The Full Monty was released in 1997, there was a delicious irony that it did so a mere week after Tony Blair was elected UK Prime Minister with a landslide victory that saw his New Labour project end eighteen years of Conservative rule. Here, after all, was a commercial feature film about a group of former steel-workers turned strippers in Sheffield who had been thrown on the scrap-heap which Margaret Thatcher's destruction of heap by industries had reduced the steel industry to.
Fifteen years on, and with a Conservative/Lib-Dem alliance in Westminster, Simon Beaufoy's original screenplay of The Full Monty has been adapted for the stage. As with the film, Beaufoy's first stage play has proved a feel-good hit even as it deals with some very dark things, about masculinity and the by-products of losing one's livelihood during an era of mass unemployment.
“It's a recession comedy,” Beaufoy says. “It was a really grim time, and it was visibly grim. The '80s marked the end of heavy industry, so you'd literally see factories being flattened, and entire communities left out of work. There's something about that backdrop of an entire town being laid off that works for the play, and which wouldn't work if we updated it.
“This recession doesn't work as well dramatically, because its more isolated, and feels like its hidden and more isolated. We're no longer remnants of the Victorian age, and instead, everyone's in their bedroom on the internet, applying for jobs and feeling miserable.
“I remember seeing the poster for the film saying it was a feelgood film, and I'd never thought of it like that, to be honest. It deals with suicide attempts, impotence, divorce, so there's very dark things going on, but the humour is a very northern way of dealing with things, and everyone comes pout on a big high. No-one's really doing anything risque, but there's a wave of excitement when they get there kit off that's not about titillation. It's about these men who've been so low being brave enough to do this thing.”
The Full Monty was born from an original idea Beaufoy had about making a documentary film about a group of men painting electricity pylons across the Yorkshire moors. Somehow this eventually morphed into a script about unemployed male strippers that tapped into a renewed sense of optimism following the Thatcher years which were similarly challenged in films such as Billy Elliot and Brassed Off.
The runaway success of The Full Monty effectively kick-started Beaufoy's career, and has seen him pull off a similar feat of serious populism with his screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire. Beaufoy won an Oscar for the film, and went on to work with director Danny Boyle again with 127 Hours. With Beaufoy currently at work on a film that looks at the rivalry between runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett in the run up to the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, one detects a theme of sorts running through Beaufoy's work.
“It's about hope,” Beaufoy says of The Full Monty. “We believe in the characters, because they're real. They're the absolute opposite of men with beautiful bodies, and that's what makes them so courageous. Over the years I've realised that it's the end response when people come out of a cinema or a theatre that matters, and the more complex parts can be thought about later. With The Full Monty, that final image, it's about the triumph of the human spirit when these men are at their lowest ebb, that's what people respond to.”
The Full Monty, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, until Saturday. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Monday March 25th-Saturday March 30th
The Herald, March 22nd 2013