Keeping Up With the Seven Up

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

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Tim Hewitt, executive producer of World in Action, didn't think so. On the commentary for 42, Apted recalls the genesis of the program: that Hewitt "wanted to examine the English class system, by which society or the class into which you were born really determined the opportunities you had in life." (Apted, 22 at the time, might have demurred — he was a lower-middle-class kid who got a scholarship to read history and the law at Cambridge — but he doesn't say if he did.) "We wanted to get a good cross-section of English society... the idea being that out of the mouths of seven-year-old children we might learn some truths about English society: what they thought about each other, their ambitions, their thoughts on money, color, race, sex. They might give some insight into whether English society was really changing..."

So Seven Up! was agenda journalism. The show seemed to revel in painting the three public-school chappies as upper-class tyro twits — especially young Andrew, who said of his morning reading material, "I like my newspaper because I've got shares in it" (a comment he later said had been a joke) and volunteered his opinion on pop music: "I think the Beatles are mad because they make too much noise, and their hair style is so bad." Suzy, when asked about black people, replied with a sleepy-eyed smile, "I don't know anybody who's colored. And I don't want to know anybody who's colored, thank you very much." (Seven years later, a much less flirtatious Suzy offered this addendum on the race question: "I haven't got anything against colored people, but I wouldn't worry if I never met one until they day I died.")

Clearly rooting for the underdog, Seven Up! found its early breakout star (tough Tony) and two of its sentimental favorites (wistful Simon and little-lost-boy Paul) among its lowest-class subjects. The posh lads had their scholastic futures mapped out: their parents had prepped them for Marlborough and Cambridge. But Simon, when asked whether he hoped to go to university, said no: "I'll just walk around, and see what I can find." And poor, dear Paul looked stumped. "What does university mean?"

If the show's casting directors took care in choosing representatives of different classes, they were less enlightened or prescient in matters of gender and race. Only four of the 14 kids were girls: Suzy and the three from a council estate (cursorily referred to in Seven Up! as "Jackie and her friends"). Simon is the only Anglo-African — his mother white, his father black. Apted and McDougall didn't think to find a child with Indian or Pakistani roots, although families of those nationalities had been streaming into Britain for 15 years. These days especially, Apted must regret the omission.

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