What is it? The Up Series is a series of documentaries that started as one-hour TV docs that evolved into feature length films. In 1964, Granada Television selected 20 seven-year-olds in Britain from widely different backgrounds. In the first documentary, Paul Almond interviewed each of the kids about various subjects, like do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend, what are your views on politics, where do you see yourself in seven years, what do you think of poor/rich people, etc. Seven years later, director Michael Apted returned to 14 of them and interviewed them at age 14. Then he returned when they were 21. And so on up to 56 (so far).
Although there is some statement about class in Seven Up, it is a light-hearted journey into the minds of seven-year-olds. Missionary Bruce has a girlfriend in Africa. Andrew has a girlfriend, too, but he doesn’t “think much of her.” Paul doesn’t want to get married in case his wife forces him to eat greens. The rich boys all know which universities they will attend–often Cambridge or Oxford–while orphan Paul asks, “What does university mean?” Suzy doesn’t know any “coloured people” and says she really doesn’t care to, thank you very much, while Neil misinterprets the question: “Purple hands and yellow feet…I can’t imagine what they look like!” Andrew reads the Financial Times because he has stock. Charles asks John what he likes about his favorite newspapers, to which John very sophisticatedly replies, “I read the headlines and then I read about them.” These three boys also explain why it’s good to have to pay for education. Charles explains that if it were free, “Poor people would come rushing in!”
In 7 Plus Seven, Michael Apted takes over and continues the series with the theory that “give me a child at the age of seven, and I’ll show you the man.” Although there is something less scripted about this series than reality TV, by nature that the filmmakers can’t know the future of these people, don’t think that this is an objective, honest portrayal. The content is forced to fit Apted’s thesis, so he filmed things like Tony walking down a dark alley with the hopes that he would get to use this footage later when Tony got in trouble with the law; however, Tony doesn’t get into any legal trouble, so the joke is on the filmmakers. There are, though, many times when they did finagle their footage into the right slots to serve their purpose. Of the three rich boys, they all serve the destiny their seven-year-old selves predicted, and John rightly points out that the film makes light of this, as though it is the luck of their privilege that has gotten them what they wanted and ignores the hard work that went into their studies and that John’s father died when he was young, leaving his mother in a financial crisis. This may be one reason that many of the participants hate the films so much. Many dropped out for certain films (though everyone except Charles participates in 56 Up), and the ones who stay voice their disdain for it.
So why participate? Suzy says that it’s like reading a bad book. She’ll hang in there until the end, but it’s still a bad book. Others use it as a promotional tool. John promotes his charity, which results in much more medical funding. Paul promotes his band. It does provide them all some bit of fame. Neil received many letters sympathizing with his condition. Tony said that he was once driving Buzz Aldrin in his cab, and someone asked for Tony‘s autograph. “I’m more famous than Buzz Aldrin!”
As much as the film claims you know the man by seeing the seven-year-old, the viewer is almost disappointed when the kids don’t grow up to be what they expected. It’s easy for the seven-year-old Suzy or John to turn your stomach, as they are rich snobs. Yet, despite Suzy’s earlier claim, she doesn’t turn into a hoity racist but becomes probably the most likable person in the series. Likewise, even though a young John said how important it is to give back to your own country before you can think about other countries, he dedicates his life to a medical charity overseas.
Despite inaccuracies or limited views of the subjects, the films do serve a purpose. As Nicholas points out, it’s more about the everyman than about the individuals. Yes, you follow these 14 people through their lives, checking up on them every seven years, but it’s really making you think about your own life and human existence. You watch people with the best luck and the worst. You see how being lazy or poor decisions early on shape the course of your life. You watch some couples stay happily together, while others are in and out of marriages all the time, while others still stay together despite the rocky relationships. You see their children grow up and even some grandchildren. You really feel the economic state at the different years as people fall in and out of jobs. Illness strikes several people, whether physical issues like rheumatoid arthritis or mental disorders like crippling anxiety.
Ultimately, if you’re just looking for another episode of Kids Say the Darndest Things, you could watch Seven Up and be done with it. If you’re looking to then see how these kids turn out, you could also watch 58 Up, as it does flashbacks to all the previous episodes. But if you want to take a real journey through life, learn, and feel, then watch them all in order. Just leave some time in between each episode, as it can get repetitive.
If you would like to watch the movies like reality TV rather than a statement on life, that route is open to you as well. It’s easy to pick people to like or dislike. Personally, in Seven Up, my favorite was Neil, largely because his life goal is to become a coach driver. It is unfortunate to have to watch him struggle through life. Nicholas is also interesting to me because he moved from Yorkshire to my hometown Madison, WI where he taught physics at the university.