Inspired by a Jesuit proverb, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” a British production company gathered a group of children from different backgrounds and asked them questions on camera, calling the resulting special Seven Up! It was an attempt to examine the class system of 1960s Britain, and if the child at seven could have their future dictated by Britain’s stratification. The first show proved popular, so Michael Apted, a researcher for the first film, directed a follow-up seven years later, with the children now fourteen. Then another film after another seven years, and another, and so on, with the most recent being 56 Up in 2012. Apted has already announced plans for 63 Up in 2019 and hopes to continue as long as possible. The children selected were mildly diverse. Of the fourteen original participants, only four are female and all but one but one are white. But the intent was to cut across economic classes, and they were more successful at this, with children ranging from upper-middle class to orphans in a group home. (Apted has since said that he wishes he had chosen a more balanced set of children.)
Their predictions for their futures were largely accurate . The wealthy kids believe they’ll attend the fancy elite schools, and they do. The middle class children work their way to more modest jobs and universities. The poor kids continued to struggle and scrape by. The only exception is Neil, and he became the fan favorite, likely because he has the most distinct presence on screen. In his twenties, his mental illnesses began to show, and his wandering and recovery becomes one of the most memorable throughlines in the series.
Many documentaries have had real-world effects, and the Up series is among them. What makes the films unusual is their recurring nature means the participants are interviewed about how their lives are changed by appearing in the series. Some enjoy the attention (one leveraged it into bit parts on TV shows), some use the series to promote various causes, and others actively dislike appearing in it, complaining about being famous and the personal intrusion Apted’s questions pose. A few of the participants even become friends through the show itself, bonding in the intervals between filming. Their evolving attitudes then become part of the films in the series, feeding back into itself.The Up series is a window into a narrow slice of life, and the people it profiles are painfully average. But that’s the beauty of it. Part of the show is a historical record – what life is like in late-20th-Century Britain. But it also speaks to what life and aging are like for many of us. We see their childhood dreams, their adolescent cynicism, their marriages and parenthoods, aging and grappling with mortality, and we see ourselves reflected in them. I first saw them when I was twenties, and could see how much of the participants’ pasts resembled mine, and I wondered how much my future would, too.The downside to the series is mostly what it doesn’t show. There isn’t much diversity in the subjects profiled, and they are just from one generation in one country. Social shifts, like the second wave of feminism or LGBT movement, are absent. While the success of the series has inspired many similar projects in other countries, none have had the success of the original. Why is this not the sort of project a national arts program funds?
For all the missed opportunities in the series, Apted has still given us is a remarkable documentary. He began the series as questioning the rigidity of the British class system – how much external pressures will mold these children. But he also captured the development of their interior selves, and the series turns inwardly with it.