In 1964 a group of seven-year old children were interviewed for the documentary “Seven Up.” They’ve been filmed every seven years since. NOW THEY ARE 56.
The Up Series by Michael Apted is one of the most fascinating documents of the human existence. It was started in 1964 by Granada Television as a showcase of fourteen children from different socio and economic backgrounds of Britain. Michael Apted was a researcher on the program (called Seven Up!) and selected the children with the help of Gordon McDougall. The director of Seven Up! was Paul Almond and the opening of the program gives us an idea of the goal, “Why do we bring these children together? Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The union leader and the business executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.” That idea is actually based on the Jesuit teachings of Francis Xavier, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Seven years after Seven Up! Michael Apted followed up with the participants in Seven Plus Seven (1971) and has ever seven years since. Not all fourteen kids have participated in every single installment, Charles bowed out after 21 Up (1977) and hasn’t participated since. Peter claimed that he was done with the project after 28 Up (1984), but thankfully he came back for 56 Up. John missed 28 Up & 42 Up (1998), and Symon skipped 35 Up (1991), and with the exception of Charles, everyone showed up for 56 Up. This is probably due to maturity. The importance and relevance of the program has revealed itself, and now they embrace it closer than they ever could before.
1964 was a very tumultuous time in Britain and the producers at Granada Television wanted to get a sense of who the children were and who they might become. They assumed that a primarily Dickensian Class System controlled Britain, and so they documented the upbringing of working-class East Enders and the blue bloods of The West Side (which seem to universally be the more affluent side of any town). Apted admits that when they chose the children, they didn’t gather a very diverse sample, and that if he could do it again he would choose more children from a middle class and ethnic backgrounds. Symon is the only participant of color, and there are only four women in the program. In spite of this, the program is incredibly successful, as it not only tracks a country’s progress, but the people’s progress as well. In 56 Up, all of them are feeling the effects of the economy. Tony lost out on some investment properties, a few of them were laid off from their jobs because they were deemed “redundant” and Jackie who suffers from arthritis has been denied medical benefits from the state. As one might expect, fifty-six year olds talk a lot about the economy, political climates, and a world larger than their own. Yet, England suffered a much more crippling recession in the early 1980s, and I don’t remember any of the subjects in 28 Up talking about the recession and how it impacted them. They were more concerned with marriage and starting families. Each installment gives an insight into a period in a person’s life.
Nothing is without it’s detractors, and in this case, it’s primarily from the participants. Suzy and Peter are the most vocal when it comes to how the program depicts them. They complain that Apted shows up, asks them a series of questions, cuts those answers together with archive footage from the previous programs and paints a different picture than they feel they represent. Yet, they continue to show up for the program and continue answering Apted’s questions. Maybe there is truth to their answers that they are not quite ready to admit to. Peter was one who dropped out after 28 Up, where he criticized Margaret Thatcher and the government she was running. What followed was a smear campaign in the tabloids, causing Peter to decline participation in the program until 56 Up. He came back to promote his band, The Good Intentions, and he does discuss why he dropped out. It is worth mentioning that while Peter is talking about Thatcher and the Conservative Party, the bookshelf behind him contains various volumes on punk music. Very fitting.
It is remarkable that nothing too terribly tragic has happened to any of the fourteen participants. About half of them have gone through a divorce, dealt with infidelity, or had to raise their children on their own, but until 56 Up, death in the family wasn’t a central topic. Now they are getting older, they think a little about their own mortality, as well as the mortality of their parents. As Nick says, “There not doing well, they’re very old.” Compare that to the Up Series being produced in South America, where three of the subjects were dead by the time of 21 Up in South Africa (Angus Gibson 2008). The only subject that has caused real concern is Neil, a man who was squatting in 21 Up, homeless in 28 Up, living in a council house in 35 Up, and clearly containing some mental state of agitation. Apted believes that he suffers from schizophrenia, but Neil is not one to seek medical attention or advice, and agreed to continue with the program. By 49 Up, he found a job as a Liberal Democrat and lives off the very small stipend provided to counselors. He is still unmarried, but he seems, not happy, but content with the life he is leading.
Sue started off as a working class East Ender and got married and then divorced, raised two kids, found a job as a secretary, and then advanced to an administrator of Queen Mary College. She is a walking example that hard work will get you everything. There is also a wonderful joke that takes us from 49 Up to 56 Up where we find out that she has now been engaged for 14 years. Nick is the one I am most fascinated with as he started his life as a boy on a small farm in Arncliffe, went to Oxford, and then eventually immigrated to Wisconsin where he is currently a professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. When asked about girls at the age of seven, he said, “I don’t answer questions like that” which becomes another running joke of the series. And then there is Tony. It’s unfair to say, but I think Apted seems to be most interested in Tony’s development. Partly because he was such a thug of a child in Seven Up! but also because he seems to do everything he says he wants to do. In Seven Up! he says he wants to be a jockey, and in Seven Plus Seven, he is working at it. In 21 Up he has given up on being a jockey, and claims that he’ll probably drive a taxi. He owns his own cab company now. Tony tells a story where he once picked up Buzz Aldrin and while Aldrin was in his cab, an autograph seeker asked for an autograph. Tony asked Aldrin if he wouldn’t mind signing an autograph for the guy, to which the autograph seeker replied, “No, I don’t want his. I want your autograph!”
Andrew and John, Jackie and Lynn, Paul, Symon… all their stories are equally compelling and engaging. Better than reading about them, you should start watching them. 56 Up is still in theaters, and all other seven installments are available for streaming on Netflix Instant. It’s the start of a new month, and I suggest that you watch Seven Up! today. Then watch each installment at the beginning of a new month, by then 56 Up will undoubtedly be available for viewing. Each installment is a wholly contained documentary and you don’t need to see the previous ones to understand what is going on, but that is not the point. The point here is to see if the seven-year old is still present in the twenty-eight year old, the forty-two year old, and the fifty-six year old. This is Britain’s future.