1 9 6 3 – Current (UK)
“We’ve brought these children together because we wanted a glimpse of England in the year 2000” – So began an edition of Granada’s now sadly-defunct documentary series World In Action, filmed in 1963 and titled Seven Up.
Taking as a premise the Jesuit saying “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man” the programme selected 14 children, all aged seven, from a variety of contrasting class, gender and ethnic backgrounds, and then asked them a series of questions about who they were, what they liked, what they thought of the world around them and most significantly, what they thought would happen to them in the future.
It was intended that the children’s responses would test the validity of the Jesuit proverb and afford the viewer a unique insight into how the significant questions of nurture and upbringing impacted on the shape of a child’s destiny.
Of the 14 children, roughly six were working class or poor, four were upper class, and four were notionally “middle class”. Only four were female; only one was black.
Seven Up adopted a very straightforward question and answer format, quizzing each child in their respective learning environment, then throwing them all together to watch the bemused collision of class and etiquette on a visit to London Zoo, at a party, and in an adventure playground.
In doing so, the World In Action production team created a piece of television which, unknowingly, provided the root for the development of the most ambitious, significant and influential television documentary project ever.
Unbelievably in retrospect, the original film was perceived as a one-off with no thought given to checking to see if any of the 14 kids actually did realise their dreams by the year 2000. But at the end of the 1960s, Michael Apted proposed to Granada another one-off film returning to see how each of the children were progressing.
Seven Plus Seven was shown in 1970, with Apted himself in charge as interviewer and director. Since then this cyclic concept (returning after each seven-year period) has resulted in a collection of documentaries unique in TV history. Twenty-One Up appeared in 1977; Twenty-Eight Up in 1984. Thirty-Five Up followed in May 1991, and Forty-Two Up was shown in July 1998.
Apted is an exemplary film-maker – His direction (editing together new footage with selections from an ever-expanding resource of archives) is evocative, engaging and often very moving, with some quality touches like beginning each film with the original black and white World In Action title sequence.
What of the people themselves? There’s Tony from the East End of London, who wants to be a jockey at the age of seven, works at some stables at 14, and rides at Kempton before he is 21 (“all my ambition fulfilled in one moment.”). At 14 he declares that if he can’t make it long-term with the horses he’d become a cabby.
He still drives a taxi at 42. Such foresight and confidence seems built on brazen self-assurance: “All I understand is dogs, prices, girls, the ‘Knowledge’, roads, streets, squares and Mum and Dad and love. That’s all I understand – all I want to understand,” he announces at 21.
But come 42, and the death of his parents, the near collapse of his marriage, and the symbolic move out of London to leafy Essex suburbia, he seems more guarded, cautious: “I’ve done as well I can go – I think this is about the limitations for me now.”
Jackie, Lynn and Sue are one of two trio’s from similar backgrounds; In this case from another East End school.
While Lynn married young at 19 (“You do think, Christ, what have I done?” she confesses at 21) she is still with her first husband – while Sue (married at 24) and Jackie (at 19) have both been through various relationships. All have children they are struggling to bring up, with or without help from older relatives.
The three girls seem to have the strongest relationships with their children – openly loving and caring for them on screen, Sue stating she wants her kids to have “really satisfying” careers, something she’s never had.
The two other lower class kids are Symon and Paul, who at seven are in a London care home as only children of single parents.
Both seem aware of their status as something socially ‘different’ right from the start. After working in a Walls’ freezer room and as a forklift truck driver, Symon is candid at 42 about “being in the wrong job for so long now”.
We see him bringing up a large family and marrying twice, and now re-educating himself (having just passed GCSE Maths), apparently more at ease with his life than before.
He is the only black subject of the series, and Apted tries repeatedly to question him on notions of discrimination and what kind of prejudice he’s suffered. Symon is subdued and almost indifferent in his answers.
The other child from the care home, Paul, is still trying to master his lack of confidence. He moved to Australia with his father before he turned 14 and now speaks of moving gently into middle age and the pleasure of growing old with his family. Like Tony, he has just moved “upmarket” into more affluent suburbia.
The second trio of school friends, John, Andrew and Charles, all appear painfully posh and snobbish at seven; “I read The Observer and The Times” intones John, before outlining faultlessly his exact path through elite private education through to his early 20s.
This trio of haughty preppies don’t help themselves by remaining stubbornly intolerant of Apted throughout. Indeed, John refuses to appear in Forty-Two Up and only consents to be filmed for Thirty-Five Up to promote a Kurdish benefit recital.
Worse, Charles refuses to appear in any of the films after Twenty-One Up, with Apted informing us in a voice-over of his whereabouts by 1998 – Head of science documentaries at Channel Four!
Andrew has stuck with the project and at 42 holds a high ranking law job and takes his kids to New York for a half-term holiday. “Just because you had the opportunities it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to pull through,” he argues with reference to his privileged background.
But the evidence is revealed time and again, simply in the difference in standards of living (Andrew seems to live on near-estate size rural dwellings, Jackie in a council flat near Glasgow getting her mother-in-law to pay her bills).
The other upper-class subject – Suzy – appears nervous and depressed at 21, but is a happy mother by 42 with three kids and a comfortable home. She doesn’t “like babies” at 21 but at 42 states “All I want is to be alive long enough to see my children grow up.”
It’s telling that while in most cases the kids appear endearing and affectionate at seven thanks to their charming innocent observations (“What does university mean?” pleads Paul), obvious exceptions are the four upper-class kids, whose pronouncements and extremely plummy voices make you want to abhor them.
Nick grew up as a farmer’s son in the Yorkshire Dales but went to boarding school, read Physics at Oxford University and is now a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in America.
He does not “fit” in with what his rural background might have ordained for his future; though he notes that his childhood fascination with how things worked – and his desire to “find out about the moon” at seven – prefigure his contemporary career in science.
In Forty-Two Up he is filmed revisiting the Yorkshire village in which he was born and brought up, finding his father coping with the collapse of the farming industry by selling up and retiring early. Nick is one of the most lucid and engaging characters in the series; at seven he announces “If I could change the world I’d change it into a diamond”; at 42 he concludes he had to move away from the Dales, for while being “enormously proud of coming from here”, “here” is not where he could realise his dreams and ambitions.
Bruce is at pre-prep school at seven; Oxford at 21; but gives up a career in insurance to teach in London’s East End. At 14 he explains how he doesn’t “agree with the Conservatives racial policy”; and at 42 is head of Maths at a multiracial, multicultural secondary school.
He only got married in 1997 and now talks of passing into middle age quite contentedly, and remains an unashamed optimist and confident with the future.
The one figure who has persistently invited the most emotional investment and concern from viewers throughout the entire series has been Neil. His case is left to the end of Forty-Two Up to provide suitable dramatic weight and climax to the film.
Neil moves from middle-class Liverpool suburbia at seven and 14, to a London squat at 21; he’s homeless in the wilds of West Scotland at 28, and then living in a council house on the Shetlands at 35.
Physically downtrodden and destitute at this point, it became an issue whether or not he would actually survive from one film to the next!
Such was his condition that Bruce himself got in touch after Twenty-Eight Up, offered Neil a place to stay in London for a while, and they became close friends. Come Forty-Two Up, incredibly Neil is now Liberal Democrat councillor for Hackney; has an Open University degree and courses to teach English as a foreign language; and is, for the first time in his life, “looking to the future.”
The 14th child refused to appear in Forty-Two Up – but curiously, unlike the other two his whereabouts aren’t even mentioned; in fact, no reference is made to him at all. In Thirty-Five Up, he is a frustrated teacher in Leicester, but other than that, all is kept a mystery.
Each film tends to have a common “theme” – Twenty-One Up concentrates on beginning life beyond education; Twenty-Eight Up on coping with marriage; Thirty-Five Up the arrival of children; and most presciently in Forty-Two Up, dealing with mortality (for by this point, most of the subject’s parents are dead, and their talk is increasingly of reflecting on their own upbringing with a view to bringing their own kids up as best they can).
Mortality will remain a common factor now, of course. Lynn Johnson passed away after a brief illness in 2013, a year after the release of 56 Up and Apted is 15 years older than his subjects and has stated that he will continue making each new instalment as long as he is alive.
It would be a tragedy if this incredible epic did not continue through to its natural, obvious, end.
Michael Apted has produced three spin-offs: Age Seven In The USA and Age Seven In Russia (which both started in 1991), plus Age Seven In South Africa which began in 1994.