The film The Full Monty put Sheffield on the map as a city with humour, depth and even a bit of sexiness. You had to live here to know just how funny the opening sequence is, contrasting a glossy publicity film from 1970s Sheffield with the grim reality 25 years later.
Of course, there never was a golden age, but there had been better times. Industrial decline hit us hard, as investment went overseas to squeeze higher profits from lower wages. When the film came out, the 1997 elections had put to an end the long wilderness of Thatcherism and all that followed. The Full Monty really referred back to those Conservative decades, but the New Labour era was starting, so in a mainly socialist city like ours there was a sense of renewal and optimism. Strange timing then, perhaps, to resurrect the story in a stage version now premiering at the Lyceum Theatre.
The original film release coincided with the shock death of Princess Diana. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think most people in Sheffield really care much for the royal family. Grief-stricken as we were expected to be by the media, it was simply a sad death within the elite British establishment. Some people undoubtedly felt they “knew” or “loved” her but this is largely love of a symbol, a created figure, arguably part of the celebrity culture of monarchy. It’s an insubstantial thing beside the huge wealth of the Queen and her entourage, the powerful business and political connections globally, the ongoing secretive influence which only banquets can buy. We will surely never know if the conspiracy theories were true. Was she killed by British secret services? For falling in love with a Muslim?
People don’t care, do they? Well, yes, we are still partying like it’s 1997. Two more royal weddings paraded out, a jubilee and now a royal pregnancy. Oh God, please make it stop. It’s becoming a soap opera; a fantasy of a vastly wealthy family to distract us from the fact that if it’s on telly it probably isn’t true. What we know of it isn’t truth. It’s a glossy, shiny veneer to hypnotise and turn our heads away from the pavement, and real life.
The truth is Sheffield’s growing number of food banks; To Let signs on empty buildings; the fight for breadline-pay jobs; cuts which really do reduce quality of life. People can’t afford to do things. They fall between the cracks, into debt, hunger, desperation. In Spain last year, after a rise in suicides following evictions, the locksmiths of the city of Pamplona voted to cease co-operating with throwing out families, old, young and disabled people. How fantastic it would be to see people here making such connections and acting on them. “I’m not political,” some people say. It’s their choice. It’s a rejection of a political viewpoint on life. When life feels free and easy it’s hardly surprising to find this a common attitude, but when the cold winds blow, and the food runs out, things can change, sometimes quite rapidly.
The Full Monty isn’t an overtly political story, but it’s real politics; it’s based in our real lives. Yorkshire-born screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, now working on the stage version, speaking in the Sheffield Telegraph recently observed that a “feeling of hopelessness has returned”. “The people making decisions don’t care… they can’t see… Sheffield is not on their radar from Chipping Norton.” True words indeed. In Austerity Britain we’re all “in it together”, but some people are in it up to their necks, while others are happily getting through a few puddles in their 4x4s.
Also look out for Two Tribes, a forthcoming musical about the 1984 miners’ strike. This is another piece involving South Yorkshire, being put together by local heroes like Ralph Razor and Pulp violinist Russell Senior. Politics aside, it’s good to see Sheffield people and history put on the stage, and given some respect, even as other things seem to be melting into thin air.