The 1980s might seem a long time ago now. This was the decade when Sheffield probably reached rock bottom, our historic industries on their knees, and prospects seemingly bleak . Unemployment was a selective virus, attacking some people more than others, and it wasn’t a good time to be a school leaver.
If ever there is a reminder of those depressing times then Ken Loach’s film Looks and Smiles, made in 1981, is the one to dig out.
It showed the effects on two Sheffield teenagers who leave school and cannot get a job. Loach, together with writer Barry Hines and cameraman Chris Menges (the same team who made Kes and The Gamekeeper) told a human story that added up to a very political film, immediately relevant to Britain of the eighties.
Looks and Smiles was made by Black Lion Films, in association with Kestrel Films, backed by the old ITV Midlands company ATV, using its ITC subsidiary (famous for The Champions, The Persuaders, Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, etc).
Shot in black-and-white during early 1981, it appeared at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. However, it was only ever intended as a deep-seated TV drama, airing on the ITV network in May 1982.
“When I started writing the story, it was going to be about courting, having your first girlfriend. But the issue of unemployment became more and more important like a storm cloud gathering,” said Barry Hines at the time.
Ken Loach pointed to the fact that one of Sheffield’s employment offices, which used to advertise “Jobs of the Week” in its window was then offering “The Job of the Week.”
The resulting two-hour film was still the love story of Mick and Karen, but against the depressing background of Mick’s struggle to find work, and whether the Army was for some of them the only alternative to a lifetime in the dole queue.
Available on DVD, Looks and Smiles now provides a fascinating view of Sheffield in desperate times, and evokes memories of an industrial scene and a city centre lost forever, including the Hole-in-the-Road.
None of the lead characters were professional actors. Graham Green (Mick), aged 17, was from Doncaster, and 16-year-old Carolyn Nicholson (Karen) was from Newcastle-on-Tyne. The third acting newcomer was played by a 17-year-old trainee mechanic, Tony Pitts (Alan) from Sheffield.
After making the film the boys went back to their trades and Carolyn back to her studies.
However, for one of them the film did have a deep impact.
Tony Pitts turned his back on being a mechanic, landing the role of loveable young rogue Archie Brooks in Emmerdale between 1983 and 1993. He’s since played key roles in Dead Man Weds, The Gemma Factor, Scott & Bailey, Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty and Wild Bill.