Keeping Up With the Seven Up

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

(3 of 7)

Three other boys stood out. Neil had irrepressible high spirits and a budding wanderlust. If he couldn't be an astronaut, he said, "I'm going to take people to the country, and sometimes to the seaside." Bruce, an angelic blond boy with a solemn demeanor, came from a well-to-do family but, having been exiled to a boarding school in Surrey, radiated loneliness and idealism. "My heart's desire," he said soulfully, "is to see my daddy." His father was in Rhodesia, which may have had something to do with his stated ambition to go to Africa "and try and teach people who are not civilized to be more or less good." The world's most adorable idealist, Bruce was also a Christian socialist: "I think we should give all, some, most of our money to the poor people." Nick, finally, seemed to know both what he wanted to do ("When I grow up, I'd like to find out all about the moon and all that") and how to handle a TV journalist's prying questions. "I don't want to answer that," he said, as if the camera belonged to a paparazzo. "I don't answer those kinds of questions."


Each of the films, and each interview within the film, begins with clips of the children as we first saw them. The series (along with much of popular culture and psychology) suggests that seven is a state of perfection, an apogee from which a child declines in beauty, ambition and innocence. At that age, children are both guileless truthtellers and natural performers, which is why Seven Up! remains the most effortlessly ingratiating program in the series. And the most poignant, since succeeding episodes have shown how they — we — lose more in growing up than is gained. The pretty petal doesn't open; it closes, or withers, or becomes a weed.

If you want to embarrass an adult, give him an extended look at himself as an adolescent. When Apted corralled the kids for 7 Plus Seven, they were truer to their age than to their respective classes. At seven most of the children had an unself-conscious boldness; at 14, their eyes hardly met the camera's. At seven they were active; at 14, guarded, at times sullen — as if they were now on to Apted's game, and loath to play it. Some of the kids practically had to be cracked to come out of their shells. Nicholas buries his head between his knees; and Suzy, interviewed on the lawn of her father's 4,000-acre estate in Scotland, is so uncommunicative that the camera moves away from her to see her pet retriever fetch a dead rabbit. Even Tony, who usually loves the limelight, sounds curt and ungiving.

This is the way so many adolescents cope with the changes and urges their bodies are forcing them through. But some of Apted subjects are ready to banter. The upper-class boys have added poise to their prejudices. John especially: Apted asks him, "Are you ambitious," and he says yes. "What for?" "Fame. And power." "What sort of power?" "Political power." (He says that when he joins Parliament, "I wouldn't allow any strikes.") Prodded to analyze how he's changed in seven years, John sagely replies, "One grows so slowly that one never notices." And when asked if he thinks England will change, he says, "Not very much. England is too English, if you see what I mean." It's the answer the series wants to hear.

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