In 1963 a British production company created a television special entitled, “Seven Up!” Starting from the Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until 7 and I’ll give you the man,” the filmmakers gathered children from a wide socioeconomic swath in order to get a view of Britain’s future.
Luckily for all of us, one of the members of the original production team, Michael Apted, had the inspiration to return to these same people every seven years. What an incredible way to test the veracity of the Jesuits’ aphorism!
The latest film in the series, “56 Up,” was released last year. I have seen all of the films in the series; they fascinate me because it seems to me the adage is largely proven true. The child is still there in the adult; the essence of the person doesn’t change.
“56 Up” is beautifully edited. Each of the thirteen participants is taken in turn, and footage from the earlier films is edited in with the latest interview to give an overview of each person’s life. If you haven’t seen any of the other films, don’t worry; this film is so well done it can stand alone.
After viewing “56 Up” my main feeling is gratitude towards the people who were willing to participate over all these years. Some talked of the difficulties they had encountered as a result of being in the films, and it was clearly a sacrifice—your mistakes, your weaknesses, your marital troubles, your job loss, all chronicled for the whole world to see. This might not seem so noteworthy in the era of Facebook and Youtube, but in the years before the turn of the century this was very public living.
Peter, who had become a teacher, made a negative comment in “28 Up” about the way the country was being run. This was the Thatcher era (the early 1980’s) and he was attacked in the newspapers as a “communist” and a threat to the nation’s children. One parent wrote, “I wouldn’t want him to be teaching my children.” Peter dropped out after that and didn’t reappear until this film—with the explicit purpose of promoting his band.
Another man suffered from mental problems and was homeless during the filming of one of the series (“28 UP”). I especially honor his willingness to share his struggles, as he has built a meaningful life, becoming a local councilman and devoting his life to making a small corner of England a better place to live.
The series is a fascinating look at human life. As one of the men says in “56 Up,” "it's frustrating because the films never show enough of me to be a complete portrait of my life. But it's like my life stands in for everyone." That’s exactly how it feels to me; this film reveals some deep truths about what it is to be human in 2013, specifically about people who live in a Western democratic country. I find myself wishing this series could be duplicated in cultures around the world.
One of the questions underlying the original television show was political: Would Britain’s class system completely determine the course of the children’s lives?
Even though most of the participants do stay largely in their own class, by this point in time as a viewer I don’t perceive this series to be about politics. In the director's commentary for “42 Up,” Apted comments that when he showed “21 UP” to some Americans he realized the series had changed tone from the political to the personal. I think that’s also a reflection that Americans are less class conscious than the British.
Of course the political is there—some of the working class people express real concern in “56 UP” about the rottenness of modern capitalism that has made their lives, and their children’s lives, so much more precarious. But it’s a minor part of their lives, less important than their children and their jobs.
The main exception to the rule of class immobility is Tony, and in some ways he’s become a star of the series: he’s the man portrayed on the “56 UP” DVD cover, and his life ends the film. Tony was from the lower classes—his father did some kind of confidence trick on the street in front of pubs—and through his hard work as a cab driver he has built a solid middle-class life for himself and his children, complete with a vacation home in Spain (which he still has after the global financial crash).
Another woman from a working-class background, who did not attend university, now is administrative head of a university’s graduate program. She succeeded in her career and rose in the class system due to her intelligence and hard work.
Two men from the lower classes show success of another sort. Both of these had spent time in orphanage-like schools because their parents were temporarily unable to care for them, and as adults they have created loving long-term relationships. One has become a foster parent for more than sixty children. Both men, who have done manual labor all their lives, speak of the realization that they “could” have achieved more in their work life if they had worked harder to get a better education in their youth. I put “could” in quotations because I believe the truth is they couldn’t have done any differently. They did the best they could with the gifts and burdens they’d been given—both genetically and environmentally. And these two have both done well.
What could happen is that their lives could serve as an inspiration for young people who are from a similar background as these boys. In fact, I find myself imagining this film being shown to young people as a mandatory part of high school: a way to clearly see the result of life choices.
My only criticism of the film is that I found myself wishing Mr. Apted had asked some questions about the meaning of life in general, or elicited a retrospective look at the meaning of their life in particular. What mattered to them? What did they think about the Jesuit saying—did they feel like they were the same person? It would have been interesting at this stage in the series to have them reflect back on their lives.