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7 Observations From Watching An Epic Documentary On Modern Britain

7 Observations From Watching An Epic Documentary On Modern Britain

Suzy in Seven Up (1964)


Suzy in Seven Up (1964)

Back in 1964, the British television news show "World in Action" profiled the lives of fourteen seven-year-olds from various walks of life in the U.K.: some were in an elite West London prep school, others were from the rough and tumble East End, one grew up on farm, and two were in a children's home run by a charity.

The show was inspired by a Jesuit motto: "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man."

"Why do we bring these children together?" the show's narrator asked. "Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old."

Called "Seven Up," the show was a big hit in the U.K. What happened next, however, made it legendary.

Michael Apted, a young man who had worked on the original show, decided to revisit the subjects seven years later, when they were 14 years old, for a show called "Seven plus 7." Seven years after that, he visited them again for "28 Up," and seven years after that, he did it again, and so forth all the way through "56 Up," released last year.

The series has became one of the most celebrated TV programs in the United Kingdom, topping a 2005 list of the greatest documentaries ever, and inspiring similar series in other countries, including the United States. Roger Ebert, writing in a series about "Great Movies" in 1998, said that the series aimed to "penetrate to the central mystery of life."

But what is that mystery, and what answers can the series provide? I had never watched the series before, so I recently sat down and watched all eight episodes in a row, clocking in at more than 12 hours of footage.

Here are seven things I noticed:

Lynn in


Lynn in "7 Plus Seven" (1970)

1. Rich kids have a huge advantage over poor kids, but it is not insurmountable

In one of the most famous moments in the show, three boys from a Kensington prep school (Andrew, Charles, and John) list their future plans - a certain boarding school, followed by a particular college at Oxford or Cambridge, followed by a specific career. Of these three boys, two nailed their futures with remarkable accuracy, while the third failed to get into Oxbridge but made do with another well-respected university, Durham.

The accuracy of these boys in predicting their lives' courses is stunning, especially in comparison to the uncertainty of some of the other children in the first show. Paul, one of the boys from the charity school, doesn't know what the word "university" means - and he goes on not to drop out of high school and become a bricklayer and handyman who struggles financially.

Thankfully, childhood circumstances don't determine everything.

Nick, a child from a rural village who went to a one room school four miles away, ended up being perhaps the most academically successful of all the original children. He moves to the United States and works as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, enjoying professional and financial success.

Likewise, one of the kids from the East End, Tony, becomes a London taxi driver with apparent economic stability - enough to buy a second home in Spain.

Conversely, Neil, a middle-class boy who seems to be one of the brightest in the first show and had ambitions of Oxford, ends up dropping out of Aberdeen University and becoming homeless.

2. Careers are not the defining factor in people's happiness

Thankfully, professional success is not the only thing that matters.

For example, two of the most downtrodden kids in the first episode, Symon and Paul, are housed at a charity school. Symon is the product of birth out-of-wedlock and continues to live at the school, away from his single mother, until he is 13. Paul is being housed at the school while his parents divorce, and seems to hate it: telling the camera awkwardly about how the older boys hit him. Neither child attains financial stability or success, but both find a loving partner and ultimately build happy families.

On the other hand, John, one of the poshest prep school boys who went on to go to Oxford, becomes a litigator but expresses disappointment that he never became a politician, as he had hoped he would and as many of his peers did.

Nick in


Nick in "21 Up" (1977)

One of the cheeriest participants on the show is Bruce, a child from a wealthy family who goes on to work in tough East London schools and Bangladesh, before eventually working at a private school. Meanwhile, another participant who became a teacher seems far less happy - "It is not the job that makes you unhappy," Ebert observed about this in 1998. "It is whether you want to be doing it."

3. The participants show a big capacity for change

A lot can change between episodes. Bruce is one of the few characters still single at 35, and he is clearly a little worried that he may remain a bachelor. By the next episode, however, he has found a wife, and the next time we see him after that, he has not one but two kids.

Meanwhile, Tony's economic turnaround surprised even the director, who later admitted he filmed Tony at various neighborhoods with a connection to London's gangland past as he believed he would eventually end up in prison. Instead the cab driver ends up sunning himself (and his extended family) at a holiday home in Spain.

One of the most remarkable stories in the show, however, is that of Neil, has become homeless by "28 Up." While that episode makes for uncomfortable viewing (Neil admits he has considered suicide), he is later able to return to some kind of normality as a local politician (crucially, a key part in this is played by his friend and fellow Seven Up participant Bruce).

You can see some of Neil's story in the clip from 49 Up below:

4. Britain's demographics have changed dramatically

It's hard to imagine that a similar show cast today would feature the same cross section of society.

On one hand, this may have to do with the limitations on the casting process - the first show was designed as a one-off, and Apted, who did the casting on that show, was only given ten days to find its subjects.

Yet surely the casting says something about how Britain saw itself in 1964. The participants come primarily from the upper crust and lower edges of society, with almost none from the middle class. Only four of the participants are female, and just one participant is not white.

Apted didn't anticipate that changing economic factors that would blur the lines in the U.K. class system, inflating the numbers and significance of the middle class, nor that women would obtain a vastly more prominent position in society. He was also unaware that by the 2001 U.K. census almost one in ten people would list themselves as an ethnicity other than white.

The show's content also reveals changes in the U.K. For example, almost all of those who grow up in London's East End move elsewhere, while those who stay look increasingly out of place in what has largely become a Bangladeshi neighborhood.

In one sad scene, Tony goes back to the dog-racing track he hung spent a lot of time in growing up as it now stands derelict. In the most recent episode he returns to the spot again - this time it has been turned into the new Olympic Stadium for the 2012 games, one example of the massive government spending being put into the area in recent years.

Tony in


Tony in "57 Up" (2012)

5. Almost everyone seems better off

When the show began, Britain was less than 20 years past the end of the Blitz, with parts of the East End still rubble. The early episodes would also deal with the economic stagnation and rising unemployment of the late 60s and 70s.

Over the course of the show, however, the economy start to get better. Almost everyone seems to be able to live to a comfortable standard. Even those who had little educational opportunity seem able to move to middle class neighborhood and enjoy a lifestyle far more comfortable than they grew up with. The most obvious example is Tony with his Marbella mansion, but it is noticeable across the board.

The experience of the show participants matches up with reality. According to one University College London study released in 2002, "median equivalent incomes (before housing costs) have approximately doubled in real terms over the last four decades (up by 90 per cent since 1961)." The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported last year that on average median household net incomes had grown by 1.5% per year over the past 5 decades.

The problem, of course, is that economic inequality has also grown during the past five decades: Even the richest members of the show are out of place in a London that has become home to an ultra-rich global elite.

6. Having your life on camera is a strange and often unpleasant experience

Of the 14 children who were featured on the first show, only 10 have appeared in every episode. One, Kensington prep-schooler Charles, has refused to appear on any of the shows since 1977 (perhaps un-coincidentally, he now produces documentaries himself), while another says that he only participates in the shows to raise money for a charity he founded, saying that it is a "poison pill" he is forced to swallow every seven years.

Part of this is simply because the show has put the participants in the uncomfortable position of having their lives picked over by the British public. One participant, Peter, refuses to take part in three episodes after he is criticized in the tabloid press for angry remarks he made about Margaret Thatcher's government in 1984. Another participant's spouse later refuses to be involved in the show after her dismay about how some of her comments came across (she later divorces her participant husband).

Perhaps a bigger part of this animosity is because the director, Apted, forces them to scrutinize their own lives - their past, their future, their successes, and their failures. Apted, to his credit, often includes scenes of the participants scolding him for his line of questioning.

That so many participants have remained in the show says something about how much it has defined their lives.

"My ambition as a scientist is to be more famous for doing science than being in this film," Nick says at one point, "But unfortunately that's not going to happen.

Seven Up Neil And Tony


Neil and Tony in Seven Up (1964)

7. The show is a legacy of a different time

If you're a Netflix Instant customer, you can watch all eight episodes of the show in a weekend; however, it is a strange experience to do so. These shows were designed to be watched seven years apart, with viewers who might not remember what happened in the last one. Binge-watching is frustrating, as the show constantly cuts to past episodes, repeating certain moments incessantly.

As TV demands have changed, one wonders if we could pull off something so big and ambitious today (most attempts to replicate the series in other countries have not been as successful).

There is a huge level of public service involved in a show like this, and it could perhaps have only happened in the context of British television at the time (while it was shown on the BBC's commercial television rival, ITV, there was a conscious effort in the 1960s to avoid having the kind of "vulgar" programming on British commercial television as there was seen in the United States).

Apted recently said that "the fragmented state of the business all over the world will never allow anything like this to happen again," and he may be right.

When the show was created, "reality TV" didn't exist, and neither did the idea of a normal person going on TV to become famous. As such the people on the show were remarkably natural and candid. They had nothing to gain from being on the show. The participants' understanding of the show may have changed, however - Peter, an angry teacher who dropped out of the series for three episodes, came back to the show last year so that he could promote his new country rock group.

The show's uniqueness is becoming only more apparent as it goes on. As the show has recorded the lives of the 14 participants, it will also show them getting old and eventually dying. Even though all 14 original participants of the show are still alive, many of their parents and loved ones are not. On numerous occasions the show features the participants talking about grief, often in tears.

In the next one or two or three episodes, some participants will likely have died.

Apted, for his part, has said he has no plans to pull the plug anytime soon, though as he is 11 years older than his subjects, his own mortality may one day be an issue.

"Well, I know what I hope," Apted recently told NPR's On The Media. "I hope to do 84 Up when I'll be 99."

The next episode of the Up Series is due in 2019. You can watch the episodes that have been released on Netflix streaming, or order the DVDs from Amazon or from independent distributors First Run Features.