Looks and Smiles Review

Ken Loach’s 1981 feature about unemployment in the North.

Looks and Smiles marked the fourth collaboration between Ken Loach and novelist Barry Hines. The pair had first worked together in the late sixties when adapting the latter’s A Kestrel for a Knave into the much-loved Kes. They reunited in 1975 for The Price of Coal, a two-part television drama that screened as part of the BBC’s Play for Today strand, and again for The Gamekeeper, another adaptation of a Hines novel that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival but made its debut in the UK on ITV. Looks and Smiles was originally intended for a TV audience (and initially conceived of prior in-between The Price of Coal and The Gamekeeper) only for its funding to fall through, prompting Hines to reinvent it as a novel and for Loach to seek alternative finance as a big screen venture. Both finally put in an appearance in 1981, the feature playing that year’s Cannes in May (where it scooped a couple of prizes) and the novel being published in September.

Set in Sheffield, Looks and Smiles concerns itself with the fortunes of two friends and school-leavers struggling to cope with life during the economic hardships of the early eighties. Mick, played by Graham Green, had stayed on at school so as to be in a position to learn a trade and has hopes of becoming a mechanic. Alan, played by Tony Pitts, opts to join the army and finds himself stationed in Northern Ireland, leaving Mick to face the boredom and frustration of life in the dole queue plus an on-off relationship with shoe shop assistant Karen (Carolyn Nicholson). He returns occasionally for drunken nights out that usually end in a punch-up or two, though you’d hardly describe this as a film of action. Indeed, inaction is the key phrase here as Loach and Hines capture the listlessness of Mick’s everyday life. Only Karen, his beloved Sheffield United and Alan’s fitful visits provide fleeting moments of respite.

Loach employed non-actors for his three central roles, of whom only Pitts would appear in front of a camera again. (He went on to do plenty of telly, including an irregular stint on Emmerdale Farm, had a key supporting role in Red Riding and a small part in Spielberg’s War Horse.) Needless to say, the lack of familiar faces and trained performers adds immeasurably to the sense of social realism, especially when it comes to the central couple. Green and Nicholson come with no associations and no future or former roles with which to connect them; essentially, they are just the everyday folk they portray onscreen. A little further down the cast we also find Roy Haywood, who eagle-eyed viewers may recall from Barney Platts-Mills’ 1969 tale of teenage life in London’s East End, Bronco Bullfrog. It’s an interesting film to compare to Looks and Smiles, primarily for the similar age and activities of their protagonists (young romance, petty thievery and a fixation on motorbikes) though also stylistically. Both films were shot in black and white, Bronco for budgetary reasons, though Loach made his decision as a means of removing any enforced romanticism into his character’s lives. To be honest, thanks to Chris Menges serving as cinematographer, I’m not entirely convinced that he succeeded in this, plus it makes Looks and Smiles feel somewhat timeless. The disco in the nightclubs and the forgotten new wave act Richard and the Taxmen in the working’s men club date the film to that awkward transition phase between the seventies and the eighties (as do the flares and the ’taches) and yet the images never resemble the familiar archive clips of the era.

The timing is important in another way, too. Loach made Looks and Smiles at a point when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was still relatively new and, as such, the economic hardships it documented would only worsen over the coming years. Had he made the film in 1984 or 1985, you imagine it would be an altogether angrier work. (There’s a prescient moment when Mick’s dad refuses to let him join the army like his friend because he doesn’t want him to get stationed as a strike-breaker.) As it stands Looks and Smiles registers frustration rather than anger and, consequently, has the effect of seeming a tad muted and less immediate in comparison to some of Loach’s other work. It’s an often wonderful film, yet it never quite trades on its viewers’ emotions in the manner of Cathy Come Home, Days of Hope, Ladybird, Ladybird and so on. Nevertheless, Park Circus’ new DVD makes for a more than welcome opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with one of his lesser-seen efforts – of Loach’s numerous cinema features, it’s the last to the make the move to the format in the UK.


Park Circus have treated Looks and Smiles to a somewhat extras-lite DVD edition albeit one with an excellent presentation. The film arrives with its black and white photography looking wonderful and in a near-spotless condition. Contrast levels are superb and there are no ill-effects in the transfer to disc. The soundtrack is similarly issue-free and copes ably with both the dialogue and the sparing use of Marc Wilkinson’s fine score. There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise, while the only special feature is a six-image picture gallery of colour production stills.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Mar 18, 2013

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