John Godber's Up'n'Under is a movie about six working-class Yorkshiremen from an area of high unemployment who find self-worth through can-do camaraderie. The chances are that you may feel you've seen this movie before, and quite recently. In the month of Up'n'Under's release, The Full Monty has become officially the most successful British film of all time.
In Up'n'Under, an ex-professional rugby league player wagers his scant life savings that he can coach a rugby league pub sevens side full of ringers, drunkards and wimps to victory over the most fearsome collection of neanderthal invincibles in Yorkshire. You'd get similar odds on Up'n'Under overtaking The Full Monty at the box office.
There are reasons for this. For one, Gary Olsen, who plays the quixotic coach Arthur, is not Robert Carlyle, or at least not to look at. Rugby league, which has marginal status even in the country that gave it to the world, doesn't speak the lingua franca of international entertainment with quite the same fluency as the male strip show. Most of all, the feel- good comedy requires a subtlety and sureness of touch that is extremely elusive.
Godber has written 33 plays. The Arts Council lists him along with Alan Ayckbourn as currently the most performed British playwright this side of Shakespeare. But this is his first film as either scriptwriter or director, and the film's uncertainty of tone highlights the pitfalls strewn along the path that connects theatre to cinema.
The way Godber sees it, "The Full Monty is a very different animal. We always thought that there was much more emotional undulation running through Up 'n' Under. And also we didn't want to overlay the social and political aspects because we felt it was there pictorially. And we tried to make it as bare-arsed rough as it could possibly be."
Up'n'Under was first performed as a play at the headquarters of the Hull Truck Theatre Company in 1984. Godber became its artistic director that year, at the age of 26. The play was written for an audience that shared some of the wassailing instincts of the characters in the play.
"I designed it like two halves of a rugby game. We've got a theatre in Hull where people can bring their beer in. If you've got an hour-and-a- half first act, you've got a lot of people going to the bog."
The thoughtfulness of its structure was of less relevance to the wine drinkers in the West End, but the play itself was just as appreciated there, where it ran for two years and won an Olivier award for best comedy.
For most of the intervening years, there have been plans to turn Up'n'Under into a film. For the past four, the script has existed but the money has not. At one point when it appeared to be forthcoming Godber was forced to turn down a key role in - guess what? - The Full Monty. When he couldn't do it, he recommended they try his mate Mark Addy, who had appeared in six of his plays.
Addy is now finding out about Hollywood courtship rituals with which Godber is already grimly familiar. When his play Bouncers won seven Critics Circle awards in Los Angeles in 1986, Godber overcame his fear of flying to listen to the film people's offers.
"I went over there thinking, great they're going to make a film about bouncers in Hull or Wakefield, and of course that was the furthest location from their mind. They were thinking of Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. I said, no thanks."
There are various templates for Up'n'Under. The pub no-hopers fight the good fight on the carpe diem ticket, like the boys in Dead Poets Society.
Godber's MA thesis at Leeds University, which he did part-time while still teaching drama at his old school in Upton, near Pontefract, was on David Storey. In the novel (and classic film) This Sporting Life and the play The Changing Room, Storey shone a light into the murky northern world of rugby league which he got to know and dislike as a professional player.
"I watched This Sporting Life time and time again," says Godber. "Wonderful film, though I thought it looked rather dated."
Godber himself played rugby union at school and university. At six foot three and only slightly less than his current weight of 171/2 stone, he says he "took some stopping". Before writing the play Godber also happened to see Rocky, which Arthur uses as a motivation tool.
"What I tried to do in the play was create that kind of feelgood factor onstage. The play is a kind of send-up of Rocky: I take a group of absolute underdogs who haven't got a chance and pitch them against a very tough outfit."
Cue much footage of fat men in tracksuits running along canals, not to mention fat men in shorts pumping iron in the gym.
The twist with Up'n'Under, and the visual antidote to all that flab, is that the team is trained by a woman. In the original production Hazel was played by Godber's wife, Jane Clifford-Thornton, who now plays Arthur's wife, Doreen. In the film the role is taken by Samantha Janus, who with a certain inevitability is followed into the shower room by one of the players. The way Godber has filmed it, you get a fairly frank eyeful of the Janus physique which leaves you feeling no less voyeuristic than the player. When he coyly turns down her invitation to join him, she tells him, "You've had a look - now piss off," which sounds like a straight case of Godber having his cake and eating it. "I've never thought about that," he says. "The idea behind it is that here are these hairy-arsed rugby guys who think this woman is on a plate and one of them walks into the shower and she completely calls his bluff. I take the point that from a semiotician's point of view, yes we see her bum. But that never crossed my mind, to be honest."
The theme of Up'n'Under underpins most of Godber's oeuvre, which includes five plays about the coal-mining industry and three about education. "I've always been interested in the underdog. I'm from a working-class mining background, I failed my 11-plus, went to be a teacher, did an MA, did a PhD, and became a bloody playwright."