It's a typical scene in The Full Monty, in which six unemployed Sheffield steel-workers, led by Robert Carlyle, buffeted by economic change which has made their wives the bread-winners and left them feeling lost, become strippers to make ends meet. Not especially good-looking, a motley assortment, all they can offer is that they'll go the whole way - the "full monty".
Their dole-queue shuffle is the sort of scene that British films rarely dare, the kitchen-sink tradition that is leavened by magic; a scene that makes you feel good as it shows you harsh truth. "There was something that appealed to me, and scared me as well, about that scene," says the film's director, Peter Cattaneo. "I was quite uncomfortable with it at times. But it's the way people live their lives. Objectively, it's fucking miserable and grey. But often, in our minds, we turn it into a movie."
Cattaneo might once have taken things more seriously. As a film student in Leeds in the mid-Eighties, his graduation film had taken him into the heart of a disused Sheffield steel-works, focusing on its stopped clock, the cards still in the clocking-in box, the feeling that a bomb had dropped with no warning. He intercut it with a Sixties safety film he found on the factory floor - of optimistic workers busying themselves towards a brave new world that never came - a film which is also quoted in The Full Monty's credits sequence.
Cattaneo was overtly political then, and he even thought of studying politics. Moving back down to London, he had years of struggle before the BBC offered him Loved Up, which was the Corporation's attempt at a rave film. He followed it with an Oscar-winning short, Dear Rosie. By the time The Full Monty came along, he no longer believed in the unremitting bleakness of the British political cinema that he'd loved in the Eighties. He knew it had ignored something important.
"We wanted to make a working-class film that working-class people might actually go to see," Cattaneo says, relaxing outside a pub near his Hammersmith home. "The thing we added was hope. It was important to have a happy ending, however short-lived. I think that's how things happen in life. I think reality's subjective anyway. We have dreams, we imagine things. In the same way that, when you go to the football and see a perfect goal, or hear a great song, there's a moment of `Oh, yes!' It doesn't mean that tomorrow morning won't be shite again. It was never our intention to say these guys have solved all of their problems by stripping. It's about escaping for an evening. The only criticism I've had, from very intellectual circles, is `How do you feel about making entertainment from people's suffering, and is it all right to laugh at the unemployed?' Believe it or not, unemployed people enjoy themselves, too."
The main theme that runs through The Full Monty isn't unemployment or poverty, anyway, but gender. Its men exist in their own lost world, cut off from the wider reality of their working wives. They initially agree to strip to make needed cash. But, as they rehearse, they start to worry about their weight, the size of their penises. Assessing women's bodies in a magazine, it dawns on them with creeping horror that women may look at them the same way.
In the neuroses and intimacies that the pressure of stripping, the need to think about their bodies, brings out, the men seem remarkably female. Cattaneo thinks it shows that men and women have always been more similar than they've cared to admit. "I've always felt sensitive," he says. "I've felt very insecure about sexual performance sometimes, and feeling ugly, and all those things. It's adolescent, but it never goes away. But men haven't really spoken about it. I remember, when I was 12, feeling this pressure that I was going to have to be a man, and how was I going to be able to do all these things, earn a living and everything else? Suicide rates in men in their early twenties are horribly high, and I think it has a lot to do with the pressures society puts on us. That sensitive thing in the male character, the tenderness in the script, really appealed to me. When I read it, I thought: `Yes!'"
The strip scene itself is the climax of The Full Monty's gender journey. It turned the film into something close to a documentary. The six actors shook with nerves at the prospect of taking their clothes off in front of 300 women. On the day the scene was shot, Cattaneo made everything as real as possible. His crowd of extras was hired from Sheffield pubs and clubs. He made the strip progress a little with each shot, and had a camera recording the crowd as their reactions warmed up. When the moment came for the actors to remove the last slip of clothing, they looked to each other, like kids daring each other to jump into cold water. When the clothes had gone, and Cattaneo had grabbed his take, two of the actors couldn't move, while two others ran. Ever since, the actors have felt bonded, changed, like they've been through an ordeal. It's strange, after so much adrenaline and daring, that what the film shows, with the actors' backs to the camera, is a very unfull monty indeed.
"I think a magic had come in by that stage of the scene," Cattaneo says, clearly surprised by the observation. "I think a freeze-frame of six guys' genitals would have taken it from the magical to the medical, very quickly. I really wanted it to be: `Wow, they did it!', not: `How big are their dicks?'" It seems to belie the film's point, its effort to show how the gender gap has narrowed. If it was a row of breasts, no one would say a word. "I think there's something quite charming about six arses, and something quite biological about six penises. Maybe I'm just a prude, after all this!"
Even before it opens in Britain, Cattaneo's film is already a success. Its opening in America has been promising, and its backers, Fox, are eager to work with him again. But any talk that his debut has made him an auteur is shrugged off with a nervous shudder. "The movie is Simon Beauvoy's script," he says. "Simon has his own themes, his own interest in Yorkshire, and 95 per cent of what I shot is what he wrote. The dance in the dole office was in his script. The producer, Uberto Pasolini, came up with the idea of a film about male strippers. He produced Palookaville, too, and there are similar scenes in both films. I cut out any jokes I didn't think were real, and I trod on the performances, I kept them small. I wanted everything to be as real as I could make it. But everything else came from other people. I hate the idea that it's all my work, because people in America now seem to think that they can give me some second- rate script and I'll sprinkle some Monty dust on it. That's not the case."
Cattaneo's modesty runs deep. After years of struggle, he could exploit his success in any number of ways, jump in a dozen lucrative directions. But really, he'd rather not jump at all. "I'm almost paralysed now," he admits. "It's really hard work making a film, and it's quite nice to have a gap where it's done, and I can sit around and talk about it. It gives me a buzz to have it on at my local Odeon. I can't tell you how much that means. I'm just enjoying that right now. And I've got so high up this ladder. I'm worried I might fall"n
Adam Mars-Jones's review of `The Full Monty' appears overleaf