Keeping Up With the Seven Up

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Simon as seen in 49 UP, a film by Michael Apted.

Imagine that, at age seven, you were chosen for a research project, in which, every seven years, you would be quizzed about your life's intimate details: the tests you failed, the dreams you pursued or abandoned, the jobs and loves you lost. Not only that — your reactions would be shown on television in your home country and in movie theaters around the world. Think of it. Indentured for life, because your first- or second-grade teacher pushed you in front of a camera.

That's the pact that 14 English children unknowingly signed in the fall of 1963 when Michael Apted and Gordon McDougall, two researchers for the Granada TV public affairs show World in Action, selected them to appear in a 40-min. documentary called Seven Up!, directed by Paul Almond. The kids were chosen to represent English classes and regions: Jackie, Lynn and Sue from a London council estate, John, Andrew and Charles from a Kensington boarding school, Paul and Simon (originally spelled Symon) from a charity home, Neil and Peter from a Liverpool suburb, Suzy from a titled family, Nicholas from the Yorkshire dales, rough-and-tumble Tony from the East End, ethereal Bruce from divorced upper-class parents.

For one evening — May 5, 1964 — they charmed and, with a few of their kids-say-the-darnedest-things observations, alarmed the viewing public. They then retreated into what they must have thought would be a lifetime of video anonymity.

But when the kids turned 14, Apted convened them again for "an interim report," 7 Plus Seven. That made the habit official, and every seven years since the British telly audience has watched the tykes grow up and old, take their lumps, fight life to a draw — and talk about almost all of it — in a unique string of bio-docs. The series now comprises 21 (1977), 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1991), 42: forty two up (1998) and 49 Up (2005), which opened in U.S. theaters last month. The latest essay is now available on DVD from First Run Features, which boxed the first six programs as The Up Series.

Here, then, is a popular, long-running television series with only seven episodes; a social document that, with its next installment in 2012, will have spanned a half-century; a research project with no pretense to scientific method but a compelling sense of stretching the particulars of these few people into generalizations about the English character; and a family reunion with people we've never met but know more about than we do about our extended families, or most of the people we work with. Here too is the show that, for better or worse, created a genre — reality TV — and raised it to sociological and cinematic art.


It happens that, in the past two months, my work has been awash in Englishness: not just in the Up films but in the humor of Monty Python's Flying Circus and the royal satire of the new film The Queen. I also participated in a South Bank Show about Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit who, although they are made of plasticine (and one, a dog, says nary a word), speak eloquently to the English traits of gamely soldiering on through life's trials, many of them self-inflicted.

All of these entertainments find satiric fun in the inequities and absurdities of the English class system. But it is not so much fun to those in the lower castes. At mid-century, critics of the system saw class as a dungeon from which few escaped into the empyrean of recognized achievement: Oxford and Cambridge, the law and politics, banking and the higher arts. Then, in 1962-63, came a few hints that Britain might be opening up. The country was enjoying a pop-arts renaissance, spurred mostly by children of the working and lower-middle classes, in music (the Beatles and their spawn), art (David Hockney), fashion (Mary Quant, Twiggy) and photography (David Bailey). Might the U.K. become as receptive to upward mobility as the supposedly class-blind U.S.?

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