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Looks and Smiles (1981)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment ltd

Main image of Looks and Smiles (1981)
35mm, black and white, 104 mins
DirectorKen Loach
Production CompaniesBlack Lion Films
 Kestrel Films
ProducerIrving Teitelbaum
ScreenplayBarry Hines
Director of PhotographyChris Menges
MusicMarc Wilkinson
 Richard and the Taxmen

Cast: Graham Green (Mick Walsh); Carolyn Nicholson (Karen Lodge); Tony Pitts (Alan Wright); Roy Haywood (Phil Adams); Phil Askham (Mr Walsh); Pam Darrell (Mrs Walsh)

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Two Sheffield school leavers contemplate the prospect of life on the dole.

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Looks and Smiles was originally conceived not as a film but as a television play, updating concerns about the poor employment prospects for young people raised in Kes (1969), Ken Loach's first collaboration with writer Barry Hines. Hines started working on the screenplay in 1978, not long after the second Loach-Hines work, the two-part The Price of Coal (Play for Today, 1977). When funding proved difficult, he re-wrote the story as a novel, before the film was given the green light. Looks and Smiles was released in cinemas following successful screenings at the Edinburgh Film Festival and at Cannes (where it won two awards).

Made at a time when British unemployment was already reaching record levels, it follows Mick, a teenager looking for work in recession-hit Sheffield. Looks and Smiles was made two years into Margaret Thatcher's government, and was one of only two features Loach was able to complete during the 1980s. By comparison with his TV documentaries of the period, some of which were suppressed for their angry, anti-government stance, Looks and Smiles is gentler, emphasising quiet despair over angry polemic.

Personality rather than politics shapes much of the confrontation, as when Mick's girlfriend Karen (briefly) breaks up with him because of his insensitivity. It is the subtler moments of disquiet that highlight the consequences of Thatcherite economic policy, including a poignant moment when Mick can't afford cinema tickets, and has to rely on Karen to slip him the cash. Mick's best friend signs up for the army: the only alternative to the dole queue, the film suggests, for many teenagers like him.

Loach has said that he shot Looks and Smiles in black and white (alone of all of his feature films) to avoid diluting its message with romanticised imagery. However, the beautiful cinematography by regular collaborator Chris Menges sometimes has the opposite effect, transforming bleak industrial backdrops into a hauntingly lyrical cityscape.

Despite their impressively naturalistic performances as the young lovers, neither Graham Green nor Carolyn Nicholson acted on screen again. Loach himself had mixed feelings about the film; two years after its release, by which time unemployed in Britain had rocketed, by some (unofficial) measures, to four million, he told the Monthly Film Bulletin, "I don't know if the pain of being unemployed is experienced strongly enough... I think that if we were doing it now there would be a greater sense of anguish".

Alex Davidson

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Video Clips
1. No vacancies (2:27)
2. First date (5:26)
3. Job interview (3:12)
Production stills
Threads (1984)
Hines, Barry (1939- )
Loach, Ken (1936-)
Menges, Chris (1940-)
Ken Loach: Feature Films