The Up Series

Dir: Paul Almond (Seven Up!) and Michael Apted. 1964-Present. Documentary.
The Up Series
Imagine what it would be like to have a visual journal of your life from childhood to middle-age. Would you find the footage painful or nostalgic? Now imagine that this footage is aired on a yearly program in your nation and later available for purchase across the world. Many of us cannot begin to fathom what that would be like, even with the rise in reality television, but for a small group of Brits, it's been a reality for decades.

In 1964, directors Paul Almond and Michael Apted started a program for BBC called Seven Up!. The project was part of the World in Action series. Apted, along with Gordan McDougall, chose 14 children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, many offering extremes within the range. The motto of the project is “give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” based on a quotation from Ignatius Loyola. Given the harshness of the U.K. class system, those involved predicted that the children featured would more or less follow paths that could be expected of them, based on their background. The children range from illegitimate orphans to the extremely pampered, and in order to expose them to children from different class groups, they threw them together in a field trip and studied their behavior through contrast. Following this trip were in-depth interviews with each child and their close peers. This longitudinal study is then repeated every 7 years. The programs are as follows: Seven Up!, 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up, and a rumored 56 Up is to be aired in 2012.

The series has received praise and opposition for years, and the bulk of the negative reviews stem from Apted's forced point-of-view. Though English documentary directors, such as Nick Broomfield (Fetishes, Kurt & Courtney), tend to emphasize a hands-off approach to filmmaking and model their work in a “cinema verite” fashion, many people criticize their use of natural sensationalism and editing techniques that mold and direct the viewers' attention to realities that may or may not be true. In short, the same issues that people have with reality TV (the time not captured when the cameras aren't rolling, etc) are the same here. I'll admit that when I first saw Seven Up! in my own youth, I thought the series was contrived and invasive; I failed to see its relevancy and was often made uncomfortable by it. This is all before I knew it had gone further and would continue to do so every 7 years. As with many people studies in documentaries, half the interest is in the freedom to be a voyeur—to meditate on the lives of others and compare it to your own. As flimsy as that sounds and despite its flaws, I've yet to come across someone who disagrees with the notion that it is one of the most miraculous studies of our time. You’re seeing people grow up on your television screen; you're witnessing failures, successes, relationships, their children; and you're watching the change in fashion, music, pastimes and gender roles across decades within a nation.

There isn't much sense in attempting to rehash the entire series, but I should introduce the subjects. On the low-end of the class system are mostly boys. Paul, Symon, and Tony are from this group. Paul attended a charity-based boarding school at the age of 7. Symon is an illegitimate child of a white mother and a black father and is the only child of color. At the age of 7 he was at the same charity home as Paul. Tony was from the East End of London, and my personal favorite among all the children. As a boy he had a ton of spunk, fought often and was more or less depicted as a child who would end up in prison. He wanted to be a jockey at age seven, and by 14 he was an apprentice. When the career didn't prove fruitful, he became a cab driver—a career held in high-esteem and requiring years of training—and eventually owned his own cabs, multiple homes, and started a family. I suppose he's my favorite because he offered the wittiest comments as a child, and despite the class system, became middle-class with hard work and determination. Paul went on to Australia, got married and became a bricklayer. Symon had 6 children with two different women, 5 with his first wife. He and his second wife run a foster home.

A group of girls from working-class backgrounds were chosen, and luckily many of them stayed on through the series because it's male dominated. The girls from this group are Jackie, Lynn and Sue. They all attended the same primary school, and by age 14 Jackie and Sue were attending comprehensive school and Lynn went to grammar school. The three were very close and seemed to stay close, or at least informed about each others lives throughout every series. Jackie and Lynn both married at 19, and Sue at 24. Lynn had a wonderful career as a librarian, taking a portable library to rougher neighborhoods and enriching the lives of several children. Jackie and Sue had many jobs and eventually had children, divorced and were single mothers.

Nick and Bruce came from circumstances that are vastly different than the other children, regardless of class. Nick was raised on a farm in Yorkshire Dales. He was educated in a one-roomed school before going to boarding school and eventually Oxford. Of the group, aside from Paul's parents moving to Australia, he's the only one to leave the U.K. He moved to America and became a nuclear physicist, married, and is now a professor at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bruce wanted to follow his father's footsteps and be a missionary in Africa. Even at 7 he was fairly outspoken about his views towards racial conflict, the class system, and religion. He studied mathematics at Oxford and went on to teach young children in several nations.

On the high-end of the spectrum were three boys, John, Charles, and Andrew, and one girl, Suzy. The boys were chosen from a prestigious pre-preparatory school in Kensington, a posh suburb in London. The boys represent more predictability than any of the other children. When asked what prep schools and public schools (the equivalent to our private school system) and universities they would attend, each sited schools that their parents already chose for them...all the way to college. And, not surprisingly, the boys pretty much fulfilled those expectations. John attended Oxford and is a barrister. He's the child that everyone loved to hate, and there was a series in which he did not participate. He was snobbish, rude, conservative, etc. But he also went on to surprise viewers with his compassion for those less fortunate and his charitable goodwill. He married the daughter of an ambassador to Bulgaria. Charles was happy to be rejected from Oxford and went on have a wonderful career in journalism. He stopped participating with the program after 21 Up. Andrew went to Cambridge, became a solicitor and a family man and has stayed with the program throughout its entirety.

Suzy was also quite annoying to behold. She was a bratty little girl, obviously spoiled, who stood by and watched her golden lab kill bunny rabbits in their yard. She went to a prestigious boarding school for girls and dropped out of school at 16 following her parents' divorce. She became a cynic in terms of marriage and childbearing by age 21. But by 28, she was the warmest person in the series, married, and with children of her own.

Peter and Neil lived the most “alternative” lifestyles, for lack of a better word, though both were middle-class. They were close friends as boys and they were very charming and endearing. Peter aspired to be a teacher and dropped out of the program. Neil went on to become homeless and, after dealing with his mental illness and other issues, he eventually came back to society as a District Counsellor.

Almond and Apted asked some of the most provocative questions in Seven Up!, with the intention to flesh out the children's sense of identity, awareness of the opposite sex, and to see if they had been taught to be prejudiced towards others from different races and economic backgrounds. There really isn't a way to explain why the entire program is simply genius, you just have to see it. It's inspired several programs molded after the same fashion in America, Japan, Russia, South Africa and many other countries. It is funny and heartbreaking, but very fascinating and relevant. I recommend it to just about anyone.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Oct 26, 2011 11:23am
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