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Robert Carlyle interview: 'The Full Monty is highly political'

Robert Carlyle bares all as The Full Monty returns for a series on Disney+, 26 years after it became the highest-grossing film in UK history

Robert Carlyle

Robert Carlyle returns as Gaz in The Full Monty. Image: Disney+

“The end of the film is so triumphant. So where could we go from there?” Robert Carlyle is explaining why it has taken 25 years for the cast of The Full Monty to reconvene. As a new Disney+ series brings back the beloved characters from writer Simon Beaufoy’s 1997 comedy-drama masterpiece, Carlyle has the inside story for The Big Issue.  

“The film was all up, up, up,” he says. “It is full of these amazing moments. There were no real avenues to take it down. But, of course, time has solved that.” 

The Full Monty became the highest grossing film in UK history when it was released, a little over quarter of a century ago. Worldwide box office receipts were more than £250 million (almost 100 times its budget). It beat Titanic and Memento to win Best Film at the Baftas, where Carlyle also picked up the Best Actor award. The film also received four Oscar nominations, winning Best Original Musical or Comedy Score. The Full Monty was, in short, a cultural phenomenon. Much to the surprise of its star. 

“We thought it was a tiny little film. We had no idea it would take off in the manner that it did,” says Carlyle, via Zoom, from his home in Vancouver, Canada.

The Full Monty original cast
Robert Carlyle, centre, with co-stars Wim Snape, Mark Addy, Steve Huison and Tom Wilkinson in The Full Monty, which was ranked 25th best British film of the 20th century by the BFI. All five actors return in the new series. Image: Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Carlyle continues: “It was just a small, low-budget indie film. The stuff I love. The stuff I’ve always loved to do. None of us got paid much for doing it, I can tell you that.”

It may have been small, but The Full Monty was perfectly timed.

It was filmed during the dying days of the John Major government – all sleaze and scandal and rampant unemployment. But it was released during Tony Blair’s honeymoon period, three months after the Labour landslide, when so many still believed things could only get better and optimism coursed, however briefly, through the veins of the nation.

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The Full Monty cast on stage in the original film
The original Full Monty cast did NOT leave their hats on. Image: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Here was a film showing the devastating impact of deindustrialisation in Sheffield – and by extension, the industrial towns and cities across the north of England, particularly on working-age men. But it was a film so full of heart, humour and audacity and hope.

Gaz (Carlyle), Dave (Mark Addy), Lomper (Steve Huison), Horse (Paul Barber), Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), and Guy (Hugo Speer) bared their souls before they bared all. In doing so, this ragtag group of men captured the mood of the nation.

“For anything to be a success, there has to be a healthy modicum of luck. And it was very lucky that the film was made and released at that time,” says Carlyle.

“We were heading into what became known as the whole Britpop era. For British films, British music, British fashion – all this stuff was front and centre in the world.”

Strip away the brilliantly written comedy, the film had its politics right at the core as the former steelworkers prepared for their show at the local Working Men’s Club –  inspired by the Chippendales.

The Full Monty is heavily political. When we made the film, we were talking about the death of the steel industry,” says Carlyle. “Now things have got worse.” 

To underline this point, just as the original film began with a public information film about Sheffield, showing it in its industrial pomp, The Full Monty series begins with a whistle-stop tour of the many prime ministers and northern regeneration projects over the last quarter century.

It highlights just how much all the talk of northern powerhouses and levelling up since Carlyle and co whipped off their pants in front of an unsuspecting crowd – the actors agreed to do it once, none of the extras or cast members in the audience was expecting them to actually go the full monty – has been just that. All talk.

So does 2023 feel like an appropriate time to be returning? There are certainly a lot of parallels with 1996-97; with people struggling and the party in power running on empty.

“Yes! And it seems pretty obvious that people are fed up,” says Carlyle. “People have had enough of the Tories. And now they are hit with astronomical fuel bills, there are rail strikes, hospital strikes.” 

So is The Full Monty once again going to herald a generational political shift? 

“How amazing would that be? Is history repeating itself? Well, I would welcome that,” says Carlyle.

“We want change. There’s been too much bullshit. Let’s get away from the selfishness that this government glorifies in and infects people with. Let’s get a new broom and sweep that away.”   

This is not the first time Robert Carlyle has returned to an iconic role. When T2: Trainspotting was released in 2017, it was an oddly melancholy experience. Here were these men – including Carlyle’s Begbie – that we’d first encountered so full of youth and possibility now facing the complexities of middle age. 

The cast of T2: Trainspotting
Carlyle (right) as the Begbie in T2: Trainspotting. Image: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

“With Trainspotting, we were all up for doing another one right away. But the wonderful Danny Boyle always said, ‘No, I want to wait until you get older,’” says Carlyle. “We were thinking, ‘Nah, we can put makeup on’, but he was right. You can put as much makeup on as you like, but you do not have the life experience. You do not see that age in the eyes, in the face.  

“There’s something really poignant about seeing the same faces 25 years later. So Danny was right. And Simon was right – I thought, I’ve been through this before. I like this. I know this works.” 

These two contrasting roles that catapulted Carlyle into the mainstream as small indie films became era-defining cult classics. 

“It was massive for me. Most actors, if you are incredibly lucky, get one of those films in a lifetime,” he says. “So to get two back to back was just fantastic. It wasn’t quite the start of my career, but it was very early on.” 

Paul Barber as Horse
Paul Barber as Horse in The Full Monty. Image: Disney+

To bring the characters back is a risk. But across eight episodes, there is time to really get stuck into their lives.

Dog-napping, breaking and entering, body-snatching, pigeon fancying, all-singing, all-dancing – the return of The Full Monty has it all. The tone veers from slapstick to serious sadness via lots of laughs.

But the series, co-written by Simon Beaufoy and Alice Nutter, never loses sight of the politics. These same writers picketed the show’s premiere in Sheffield – in support of the US writers’ strike.

The cost of living crisis is hitting some of them hard. Horse (Paul Barber) has, like Daniel Blake before him, been classed as fit for work despite medical issues that suggest otherwise. The result: benefit sanctions and extreme hunger.

“No benefits for eight weeks. Zero pounds. Zero pence,” he says, in a later episode.  “I haven’t eaten in days. I’ve got no gas to make a decent cup of tea. And I’ve got no money to feed the fucking meter.” 

The local school, at which Lesley Sharp’s Jean is now head teacher, is in a state of disrepair. “Write to your MP. And while you’re at it, mention the pay. And the staffing levels,” is her response to complaints about leaking water pipes. 

Because it is not just about the old guard. A new generation shows how poverty and poor life chances can be passed down. One of the pupils at Jean’s school is stealing food because he is so hungry. And, while Gaz is no one’s idea of an attentive father, his teenage daughter Destiny (Talitha Wing) is a chip off the old block.

“It was massively important to get all the originals back,” says Carlyle. “But it is almost more important to develop the characters of the Young Montys, as Simon calls them. That’s the beauty of Simon Beaufoy’s writing. He is a wonderful man. He has a fantastic heart. And he cares about people and about issues. I think maybe he starts with the political landscape and weaves the characters through that, rather than starting with the characters. 

“And the ability to show these men at the later stages of their lives, and show these young people at the very start of their lives, and he’s asking, are they going to go the same way? They have got absolutely nothing. Let’s hope it’s not going to take another 25 years. You just hope there’s a brighter future for them, you know? Because as you get older or you have kids yourself, you want the world to be a good world. 

“You want for life to be a good experience, not a shithole of an experience. Which is what has happened to a lot of people over the last 25 years.”

With The Full Monty, you come for the politics, stay for the comedy. Or should that be the other way round? Either way, it is returning at exactly the right time. One last, inevitable question… will Carlyle and co be rolling back the years and stripping off once again? Surely they must be local legends to this day.

“Firstly, no one wants to see that,” grins Carlyle. You’d be surprised. But go on…

“But it is interesting you say that. Because there is a moment during episode six where they are confronted with the music. Leave Your Hat On comes on and when they blasted it out of the wee speakers on set, honestly, even talking about it is quite emotional. Because that music was synonymous with the film. And it just took us back right to that spot, to that day we were in that club doing that dance.

“It was an incredible moment. And I hope that feeling, that emotion that we had as actors on the set hearing that music is the same emotion the audience will get when they’re watching.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FgjqX34soQ
The Full Monty is on Disney+ from 14 June

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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