Seven Up! was a World In Action special broadcast in May 1964. Planned as a one-off, it looked ahead to the far-off year of 2000 AD, reasoning that the seven year olds of 1964 would be forty three in 2000 and by then many would be key members of society (“executives and shop stewards” as the narrator puts it).
World In Action editor Tim Hewat had a jaundiced view of the British class system – wondering if someone’s social and economic background predetermined their future, even from a very young age. Deliberately choosing a diverse mix of boys and girls from various parts of the country and different economic backgrounds, Seven Up! quizzed these voluble youngsters about subjects which included life, love, marriage, fighting, education and their plans for the future.
One of the unusual things about Seven Up! is the fact it was directed by a drama director (Paul Almond). He was at Granada waiting to do something else and stumbled across Seven Up! almost by accident. Michael Apted (a researcher on the original programme) took over directing duties from the second edition onwards, maintaining this drama link.
What’s remarkable is how many of the subjects kept on returning once it was decided to make a new programme every seven years. Charles dropped out after 21 Up in 1977, never to return, whilst others (John, Symon, Peter) have skipped certain ones but later came back (Suzy didn’t contribute to the most recent – 63 Up). Lynn is the first to have passed away, dying in 2013 after a short illness.
Given that the original research process was fairly random and haphazard (no long term contracts or agreements were signed as no thought was given to the possibility of future programmes) the fact that most have come back again and again is testimony to the relationship they’ve forged with Michael Apted through the decades.
There has been a certain amount of tension though. Apted himself has admitted that on occasions that he was tempted to “play God” and mould the interviews and programmes in a certain direction to tell a predetermined story. The unbalanced male/female split (ten to four) is something else Apted now regrets, whilst only one contributor – Symon – is mixed race, another missed opportunity.
Taken in isolation, Seven Up! is a really interesting and entertaining watch. The introduction of Andrew, Charles and John (all pupils in the same expensive Kensington pre-prep school) is unforgettable – along with the rest of their class they perform Waltzing Matilda in Latin.
Jackie, Lynn and Sue all attended the same primary school in East London (a slight pity that three of the four girls were plucked from the same area, but as previously discussed nobody was anticipating a long-running series at this point).
Although a fair number of the children were London-based, Neil and Peter hailed from Liverpool whilst Nick was raised on a farm in Yorkshire.
There’s plenty of amusement to be found in Seven Up! (John loathing the Beatles’ haircuts) as well as more reflective moments (Bruce wishing more than anything to see his Daddy again, who was six thousand miles away).
When Seven Plus Seven was made in 1970, things really began to get interesting (as the process of comparIng and contrasting the people they are now to the people they were then could begin). This of course is the main strength of the series as it developed, especially with those who have had the most troubled or colourful lives.
Paul has had an especially chequered journey. A lively and amusing child at seven, by the age of 21 he’d dropped out of college and was living in a squat. Still homeless at 28, by the time of 35 Up he’d slowly begun to turn his life around and during the last few decades has become a local councillor as well as contesting several General Elections.
The stories of some of the others, such as Andrew, whose lives have progressed in a much more orderly fashion are still of interest – not least for the initial shock of seeing how they’ve aged when each new programme appears.
In order to contrast the current individual with their past self, liberal use has always been made of their archive interviews. This is understandable (especially during the early broadcasts, where the audience would otherwise have struggled to remember all the faces from seven years earlier) but it does mean that there’s a certain amount of repetition in each programme. Therefore the series is best sampled at irregular intervals rather than via a box-set binge-watch.
But however you view it, the Up series is an unmissable slice of social history. The format has subsequently been copied by various other countries, but the original is still the best. Enlightening, moving, amusing and deeply thought-provoking, this is British documentary making at its very best. Highly recommended.
Seven Up! (39″ 35′)
Seven Plus Seven (51″ 56′)
21 (99″ 50′)
28 Up (61’05” and 73″44′)
35 Up (115″ 02′)
42 Up ( 59″ 40′ and 72″ 31′)
49 Up (70″ 27′ and 70″ 19′)
56 Up (46″ 58′, 46″ 57′ and 50″ 01′)
63 Up (47″ 40′, 47′ 45″ and 47′ 44″ )
Michael Apted at Granada (21″ 41′)
Ir Was Only Going To Ever Be One Film (13″ 36′)
28 Up Commentary Track
7 Up and Me (46″ 32′). 2019 documentary narrated by Joanna Lumley in which celebrities discuss what the Up series means to them.