Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

The most interesting things on the web, handpicked each day. Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

Other People

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Before the internet, before Facebook, before Twitter, a group of British documentary filmmakers launched what has become the grand-daddy of reality television. What can Seven Up! tell us about our own experiences in the (self-induced) spotlight?

Credit: Rupert Ganzer.

In the early 1990s I watched a strange documentary program. It came out of nowhere—the concept of hype and pre-publicity was still many years in the future—but was utterly compelling from the start. 

35 Up was a film about growing up, tracking a group of unrelated adults as they progressed through life. It was the fifth film in a series that had begun many years before, but it was the first one I had encountered. I was a 19-year-old university student, and 35 Up lingered in my mind for a few years, especially after an inspirational film and photography tutor took time to discuss the series in a class. Seven years later, I saw the successor, 42 Up, and then my own life took over. The next program was shown in 2005, when my own child wasn’t even a year old, and unsurprisingly it passed me by.

Right now, the publicity machine for 56 Up is going full bore, so I decided to watch the series in its entirety to see how it had evolved and what, if any, insight it could give me into today’s culture of instant recall, Facebook timelines, Flickr albums, Instagrams, Pinterest scrapbooks, tumblrs and tweets. My own memories of the 1991 program were lacking—I remembered the black and white segments and archive footage but not the interviews from the modern era. But it quickly became apparent that the Up series has a huge online presence, from YouTube clips to a comprehensive Wikipedia entry, ensuring it no longer exists in a void, swinging around into our orbit every seven years.

 

The British class system is a structure you mess with at your peril. Class distinction still exists here, largely unspoken but ever present. As the country’s coalition government is currently discovering, to protest that class is becoming less and less of an issue in modern British society simply serves to highlight the unshiftable strata of snobbery and privilege that are embedded deep within it. It takes a posse of old Etonians (or whatever the collective noun for OE’s actually is—a purse? A portfolio?) chattering incestuously about social change for everyone else to realize that that the status quo is effectively static. In the past half-century, the national perception and understanding of class, mobility, status, and privilege has been thoroughly dissected, yet many of its institutions remain in rude health.

In 1964, a group of researchers and filmmakers at Granada Television, a regional production company based in Manchester, proposed a documentary that would put some of their left-leaning assumptions about class and identity to the test. The result was Seven Up!, an hour-long film first broadcast on in May 1964. The premise was straightforward. The filmmakers identified a group of twenty seven-year-old children, drawn from what they hoped was a broad spectrum of British society. Each would be asked to describe their lives, their environments, their hopes and fears for the future, and their perception of their fellow children. The long-term idea was ambitious—are destinies effectively locked in place by the class system, and can the character and attitude of the adult be determined from the seven-year-old child? The program makes frequent reference to a quote variously attributed to the Jesuits St. Ignatius of Loyola or St. Francis Xavier: “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man” —while not ever qualifying whether or not this expectation is to be challenged or changed in the years that follow. 

The Up series has a huge online presence, from YouTube clips to a comprehensive Wikipedia entry, ensuring it no longer exists in a void, swinging around into our orbit every seven years.

Seven Up! was a popular success, shown at a time when a single television show would be widely seen and when the possibility of social change was gathering pace. To our cynical modern eyes the program was left wide open for a sequel, but it wasn’t until the late ‘60s that Granada revisited the idea, inviting a researcher on the first film, Michael Apted—by then directing episodes of the popular British soap opera Coronation Street—to do a follow-up film. The now-14-year-old children were tracked down and interviewed in order to see how their lives had changed. What began as a straightforward study of class and destiny, an anthropological adventure in the grand tradition of event television, began its gradual mutation into an exploration of expectation and happiness.

The children’s character traits are naturally exaggerated by the edit and the relationship the subjects have with the filmmakers and the unnatural nature of the interview situation. Suzy, an awkward, dreamy girl from a wealthy land-owning family from Scotland, is attending private school at age seven. Tony is an East Ender, a hyperactive, twitchy child from a firmly working-class background and happiest climbing and fighting with his peers. Bruce is a quiet, thoughtful boy attending a private boarding school in Surrey. His father has been abroad for a long period of time and he expresses a polite, almost nervous, desire to see him again soon. Nick is from a small Yorkshire village. He is curious and forthright, refusing to be drawn on questions he doesn’t want to answer. Neil, a Liverpudlian, is perhaps the most engaging of all the seven-year-olds, witty, intelligent and bright eyed. His friend Peter is more reserved. The two attend the same school and are interviewed together. At seven, Paul was at a children’s home, along with Symon. Paul is quiet, hesitant and lacking confidence. Symon is also relatively withdrawn, but seems more curious about life than Paul. He is also the only non-white participant.

The final participants were trios, each drawn from a very different milieu. Jackie, Lynn, and Sue were at a state school in London, and are seen playing together, with boys and other girls. They are presented as vivacious and opinionated, but also compassionate. Finally, we have Andrew, Charles, and John, three boys in private education in London. Self assured but old beyond their years, their opinions at seven betray the aspiration and conditioning of their parents—they know their projected path through academia, for example, accurately predicting how their lives would turn out.

The fourteen children weren’t hugely representative of Britain in 1964, not least because only four girls were featured along with only one non-white child. Apted, now 71, has spoken of his regret that the balance between the sexes wasn’t more equitable, and the lack of scientific rigor that informed the selection indicates that the longevity of the series wasn’t much considered. From the outset, however, a technical format was established; the subjects were interviewed in isolation, without adults or other, non-participating, children. In fact adults are almost never in sight in the early program, certainly not parents, placing the children and their often forthright opinions in a vacuum. The apparent ghastliness of John, Charles, and Andrew, with their career paths mapped out all the way to Oxbridge, would be perhaps more easily understandable if we could see the authority figures who were spooning this self-confidence into their mouths.

The Up series was a reality show before such things existed, ensuring its subjects could have little understanding of the impact of their utterances and opinions. As the series progresses, the artificial imposition of the medium intrudes more and more into the shaping of the lives within. Watch the programs back to back and the repetition attains edit-suite levels of familiarity. Favorite phrases and quotes resurface again and again, echoing down through the decades like omens, amplified by their incongruities or paradoxes and the inevitably of their reappearance 

Before cameras became companions and celebrity was formed from quotidian coverage, this kind of personal visual archaeology was unique.

Participants stop taking part, complaining that the intrusion is too great, the films are one-sided, or that they were misquoted and misunderstood. Others use the films to their advantage. John disappears during 28 Up, leaving the filmic spectre of his shrill, opinionated—and very privileged—childhood to linger on unopposed, and then comes back in for 35 Up to promote his charitable work in Bulgaria. This rebellion had been hinted at the age of 21, when several participants had already fingered the series as being a self-defeating exercise, edited so as to emphasize an impossible level of continuity between their seven- and 14-year-old selves, any ideals crushed by the weight of expectations. Apted’s favorite editing tactic—the repetition of a statement immediately shown to be crushingly ironic or prescient by current circumstances—is singled out by several of the subjects, and from this moment onwards they are both complicit with and critical of the filmmakers’ agenda and methods. Some warm to the experience with age: Suzy, dismissing the series with a mumbled teenage “I can’t see the point,” or John at 35, saying how he “bitterly regretted” being “pushed forwards for the series” at seven, and how “every seven years a little pill of poison is injected into [my life].” For others, the chance to return to their childhood milieu from abroad is a big attraction. 

In the pre-reality TV era, before cameras became companions and celebrity was formed from quotidian coverage, this kind of personal visual archaeology was unique. The subjects of Seven Up! received highly unusual insight into their former lives, learning how mass media can mediate the view of the past. The subjects are guinea pigs for an experiment we’re all now conducting on ourselves, whereby our past selves remain constantly at our fingertips, informing our every move and shaping the way that we live our lives. They were the Neil Armstrongs of the self-regarding society, trusted with insight and self-knowledge unprecedented in the history of everyday life.

 

The young today—by which I probably mean anyone up to the age of 21 or so—are a generation for whom this kind of introspection is ubiquitous, hard-wired into the social networks that many of them have used since birth. The Up films are the Schrödinger’s cat of documentary making, in that they cannot fail to color the lives and thoughts of their subjects. Along the way, many people drop out—of life as well as the filming process—and you can’t help but wonder how much living in this very public Petri dish affected them.

To modern sensibilities, the repetition is especially cruel. Who would want the musings of their seven-year-old selves on class and race and poverty parroted back at regular intervals throughout their lives? Hindsight weighs heavy on the later programs. The decision to kick off the 1977 film, called simply 21, with a reunion screening of the first two films effectively destroys any claim to true sociological insight. Suddenly, the crushing weight of self-awareness descends on these young lives. Most affectingly, by 1977, Neil has become haunted, his charming childhood character crushed by what he claims was parental expectations and social pressure. His university career stalled before it had even started and he is living in a squat, seemingly subsisting on a day to day basis.

This tiny cross section of British society is subjected to the microscope at satisfyingly different eras. The first program was broadcast a few months before Harold Wilson’s Labour government took power. By the time of the second film, in the early ‘70s, the Conservative Edward Heath was in power and the country was all at sea on a mix of social upheaval, and industrial and economic downturns. The British love nostalgia—other countries seem to regard us as being literally soaked in “history”—and the Up films touched a chord early on, creating a national television narrative that ran parallel to real life. The to-ing and fro-ing from left to right might seem rather alien to the American experience, but for the purposes of the film the politics of each era serve to harden the attitudes of the participants and their various beliefs: the value of private school, the opportunities offered by hard work, the futility of working against a system you disagreed with, or the essential fairness of human nature.

As the programs have progressed the twists are frequently satisfying. For example, shy, withdrawn Suzy gradually gets happier and happier. By 42 Up in 1998 she is married with three children and is training to be a bereavement counselor. Similarly, Lynn’s very pragmatic approach to life softens from her hard, almost belligerent responses to questions in the early programs, as she evolves through her career as a librarian, something from which she clearly derives huge pleasure. Andrew becomes a solicitor, building a comfortable life for his wife and two children, watching them follow him through the same path to private school. In 42 Up there’s a hesitancy in his voice when he describes his ambitions and aspirations, as if he feels reaching out of his chosen milieu might jeopardize everything he has built up. In contrast, John seems to finds a conscience, and in 35 Up is shown dedicating his time away from the law to his own charity in Bulgaria. He declines to take part in 42 Up, as does Charles, who stepped out of the process after 21 to pursue his own career in documentary filmmaking. At 42, Neil seems to have left his darkest days seem behind him, and he has entered local politics. But he is still a thin, guarded figure, at odds with the modern world. His friend Peter dropped out of the program for nearly three decades, after studying at university and going on to become a rather disillusioned teacher, the polar opposite to Bruce’s eternal optimism. Bruce is the conscience of the films, a privileged upbringing that led into an early life of teaching in a relatively deprived part of London and then in India. His measured, refined character becomes less and less withdrawn as the series progresses, and he eventually marries—far later than his fellow subjects—and settles down.

The internet is awash with long-term projects, a photo a day, a painting a day, now and then, then and now, rose-tinted nostalgia, wayback machines.

Although hints of regret overshadow everything, it is the importance of warm, intimate human relationships that becomes more and more important as the series progresses, a common-sense discovery perhaps, but one that is entirely validated by the format of the films. Perhaps this is traditionalist wisdom, thinking that might have been easily dismissed in the white heat of Sixties optimism. The first film, for all its faults, feels like an attempt at capturing the impending—and much hoped for, in certain circles—implosion of traditional class values. 

Inevitably, many of those values are very much intact at the stage of 49 Up. The films broadcast in the ‘90s (35 Up in 1991 and 42 Up in 1998) perfectly capture the polarizing capabilities of Thatcherism, and particularly the way conservative ideology promoted wealth creation as the defining purpose in life at the expense of community. “That’s what life’s all about, isn’t it, giving children the opportunities that you never had,” says Tony at 35 in 1991. Of all the subjects, Tony is perhaps the most adept at manipulating the Up process. We learn that he starts to use the films to his own ends, doing the occasional spot of acting (as a taxi driver, as he is in real life) and using each film to pour out his regrets and “mistakes.” Tony comes across absolutely set in his chauvinistic, slightly prejudicial ways, confirming the stereotype of the working-class boy made good. He is a natural fit as a London cabbie (“he done me up like a kipper”) and enjoys being recognized by his passengers.

By the age of 42, the subjects are more analytical of their role in the series and what it means, primarily as a means of tracking their life, but also as a device for analysis and self-reflection. That Jesuit maxim starts to look a little threadbare, although there are some, most notably the shy and unconfident Paul, for whom the series acts as a personal structure, a therapeutic exercise that makes him and those around him reassess his approach to life and relationships.

 

The internet is awash with long-term projects, a photo a day, a painting a day, now and then, then and now, rose-tinted nostalgia, wayback machines. The web is voracious in its desire to chronicle the world disappearing behind us. Perhaps the films mark the start of our collective quest to elevate the quotidian, to bring meaning to where there was once nothing. At the start of 2011, Facebook reported that more than 200 million photographs were uploaded to its servers every single day. These photographs are substantially different from the trillions of photographs taken before the digital era, in that each represents a memory to be shared, commented upon and instantly referred to, rather than shoe-boxed and slung under beds or into the back of wardrobes.

The Up films—more than 11 and a half hours to date, with three more hours to be broadcast this spring—are a very personal precursor to this new culture of remembering. They have spawned many imitators, in Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the U.S. and elsewhere. Even if one doesn’t particularly identify with the 14, it is uncanny to watch their lives accelerate, from the age of your child to your own generation, in just a matter of hours. These romps through the hairstyles, fashions and mannerisms of past generations are fascinating, as is the understanding that aging happens to us all; here is how things turn out.

By the time 49 Up was produced in 2005, reality television was a staple of the broadcast diet, and many of the participants acknowledged that they felt like pioneers of the genre, even if its pacing and character evolution is necessarily glacial when compared to the modern language of television. 56 Up will see 13 of the original 14 subjects return (Charles is still holding out). But ultimately, it is the relationship between memory and the sense of self that emerges as the dominant theme. The sheer longevity of the Up project—a half century of filming—transcends its political origins to become a very personal piece of filmmaking, an interaction between director and subject, time and space.

56 Up will air in three instalments on Britain’s ITV1 starting Monday evening at 9 p.m. (streaming here). A U.S. schedule has not been announced.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell