In 1964, Britain’s World in Action broadcast Seven Up, the first in a documentary film series that examined the lives of 14 children in the UK, beginning at age 7, who were from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. The purpose was to judge whether Britain’s culture, so steeped in classism, might actually pre-determine the future of a child, even in that modern age.
At the time, there were no future plans for continuing the series. But, every seven years—over the last 42—filmmaker Michael Apted has returned to visit with Tony (EastEnder ruffian and prospective jockey), Suzy (upper class, from divorced parents), Jackie, Lynn, Sue (three friends from lower incomes), John, Charles, Andrew (three friends who attended the same upper class boarding school), Paul (from a charity home who moved to Australia), Nick (rural boy turned physicist), Symon (black lad, no father and lived in the same charity home as Paul), Bruce (upper class boarding school turned socialist), Peter (middle incomer) and Neil (schoolmate of Peter’s who ended up suffering from mental illness).
Out of the original 14, 12 subjects still participate (Peter, who’s currently in the band Good Intentions, and Charles, a filmmaker at BBC, dropped out early—with Charles later threatening to sue Apted for using footage of him), with others like Symon and John going absent once or twice. If you’ve never seen the series—six volumes of lifetimes recorded, with the seventh now available in the US—these names mean little to you. But if you have, you are no doubt endeared to these people, their struggles and their triumphs, and though they all feel exposed each time the camera rolls, whatever news Apted offers on them is never enough.
Most of the participants—many of whom were initially forced or coerced by headmasters and parents to take part, but who are now paid and offered final cut on their own footage—would actually be thrilled if you couldn’t pick them out of a crowd. Jackie, Sue and John have, in particular, complained of recognition and judgment by viewers. There have even been charges of Apted’s bias. In this latest installment, Jackie goes on the offense, attacking his perceived judgment and creating one thick atmosphere during her interview. John won’t even do the interviews unless someone other than Apted conducts it, and Apted freely admits that early on, he felt Nick’s first marriage wouldn’t work out and asked tainted questions presuming divorce would be inevitable. (Nick’s wife caught on, and refused to be taped in subsequent episodes.) Other negative results include just plain humiliation: one of Tony’s daughters wouldn’t leave the house for a week when Tony revealed he’d been unfaithful. But don’t get it wrong—these films are not soap operas. Unlike bogus “reality” TV, these are actual real people—unscripted and shot in the low-key ordinariness of their lives. Real problems, real personalities—it sucks you in.
But if there’s no drama—nothing reconstructed for the screen, no backstabbing, no bug eating—what’s the draw? Is it, as Jackie and some think, the pure desire of we in the audience to critique and judge?
Not really. In fact, humans (at least we in the US, where classism is less maniacal) are prone to prediction—to calculate based on one’s personality, environment and finances, what will become of someone, anyone, really, from friends to children to family to strangers—and this series shows that obsessive tendency in spades. It’s not the wishing of ill on another every seven years, and it’s not even underestimating a soul as much as it’s the complete inability of humans to predict anything at all about one another. Seriously, how many times are we actually right? Could anyone imagine a guy like George W. Bush as president in, say, 1970? Puleeze!
We have great empathy for the Seven Up kids, now adults. Can’t imagine a soul who wouldn’t—who in the world wants their whole life recorded, or worse, edited down to a few choice segments of which do not a whole person make. Every misstep, every stupid idea or short-sighted remark, failed relationship and financial problem is there on tape, for all the world to see, for all time. Of course, you’d also get to see yourself as once youthful, once ambitious, perhaps, dreamy and idealistic—and there are those lovely shots of your own brood when you became a parent.
And this is their grand gift to us: their truth. Their lives are neither artificial nor modified—if only abbreviated. They are ordinary stories of the human condition—people to whom we can relate, for whom we can root, and we can feel contentment in their personal joys and empathy for their sorrows. Of course, almost every participant has stated that he or she can see no value in the program at all, and has no idea why any of us would want to waste our time watching them. Like most of us, the Seven Upers feel terribly uninteresting—certainly not the stuff of which films are made. That’s what makes them so perfect—and oh, how wrong they are!
49 Up is now playing at select theatres and is available on DVD, Nov. 14. The Up Series is available on DVD from First Run Features now.