Catching Up With the Kids of 'Seven Up!' at Midlife
'56 Up,' the latest in Michael Apted’s brilliant documentary series, is a powerful look at aging, class and destiny
Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches social media at the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Amazingly, 13 of the 14 British children originally featured in the much-lauded and still controversial 1964 film Seven Up! signed on for 56 Up, the latest installment of the groundbreaking documentary series chronicling their lives at seven-year intervals. Released in theaters last fall, 56 Up debuts on PBS as an Indies Showcase on Monday, October 14. (Check local listings. You can rent or stream the previous seven films on Netflix.)
Seven Up! became a series kind of by accident. The original film, commissioned by Britain’s Grenada Television, garnered so much attention and praise that award-winning filmmaker Michael Apted, who had worked on it as a researcher, decided to direct a sequel seven years later to find out what had happened to each child.
Critical acclaim continued to grow, so Apted made the series a once-every-seven-years event. Not every participant returns each time, but each film, including 56 Up, feels like a joyful reunion. These people from different backgrounds, who at age seven assumed all their dreams would come true, have over the decades endured their share of life’s lumps and bumps.
The wonderful reveal in the latest film is that its stars are all, by and large, happy — and still hopeful. They have reached middle age and they have triumphed. I hate to say it, but 56 Up will make you laugh and cry. (In fact, one of the reviews I read said, “If you don't cry, you don't have a pulse.”) And if you’re like me, you’ll probably come away with some “aha!” moments and life lessons.
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The Politics of Class
I can’t remember exactly why I got hooked on the “Up” gang. I know that the first time I met Sue, Symon, Lynn, Jackie and the others, I was in eighth-grade social studies class. The teacher, exploring the effects that socio-economic class has on destiny, showed us the British-import TV show on a reel-to-reel projector. “Will the differences in these children’s upbringings determine their future?” she asked.
At a time when most of what I knew of Great Britain was the Beatles, Twiggy and Carnaby Street, the children in the film seemed foreign and slightly irksome. I was too young to find them interesting or endearing.
The trio of posh boys claiming they read the Financial Times? I would have slapped them across the face if given a chance. The girls who had no ambition beyond becoming mothers? They seemed unimaginative, nothing like my solidly middle- to lower-middle-income classmates, all of whom expected to go to college (and most did).
The tremors of social change had not yet caused the seismic shifts we would see toward the end of the 20th century. This was 1964, and we American girls, only a few years older than the children in the show, talked of becoming teachers, movie stars or even scientists. We already felt we had lives beyond the family.
Several years later I watched the second in the series, 7 Plus Seven, in a college class. The professor posed a question that was nearly identical to the one my social studies teacher had asked years earlier: Did social class influence attitudes and ambition? To me the answer was obvious: Of course!
Although this film was shot in color, the children seemed blotted into economic stereotypes. I predicted who would go on to college (or “university,” as the children called it) and it turns out I was right.
On cue, seven years later, I sought out 21 Up on my own and have done the same with every installment since. I found myself sympathetic to some participants and disgusted with others, but they were all interesting. Nearly all 14 got married and had children at an earlier age than I did, yet in spite of the huge cultural differences, I felt my life strangely in synch with theirs.
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Growing Up With 7 Up
A few years back, the “Uppers” and I all crossed the mid-century line. We have gone gray (or we color our hair); we have all suffered loss and disappointment. But extraordinarily, the 13 56-year-olds featured in this segment are happy in their lives and have achieved grand things.
Twelve have families. Nine are married. Sue, who at 7 said she wanted to work at Woolworth’s and whose formal education ended with secondary school, has a high-level administrative position at the School of Law at Queen Mary, University of London.
Symon, the only non-white child in the original group, works in a warehouse. Married for years to the wonderfully energetic Vienetta, Symon is estranged from two of his children from his first marriage. Still, his days are filled with love. He and his wife have been fostering children; a few, now on their own, speak emotionally to the camera about how Symon and Vienetta “saved” them.
Nick, the farm boy who went on to Oxford and became a nuclear-fusion researcher at the University of Wisconsin, now teaches electrical engineering. Bruce, another Oxford graduate, didn’t marry until he was past 40 and now teaches “maths” at a fairly posh public school. He’s less idealistic than he was in his youth, when he worked with impoverished and often troubled students in the East End. His own two boys attend a Quaker school.
Jackie has probably suffered the most hard knocks. She's been on “disability relief” for several years because of rheumatoid arthritis, but the government now says she is fit to work, something she claims isn’t true. (“Find me a job, Mr. Prime Minister, and I’ll take it,” she says.) Yet Jackie considers herself an optimist. “My glass is always half full,” she says. Intrepid, she is investigating Internet dating.
Even the heartbreaking, sensitive Neil, homeless for most of his 20s, has found a purpose. A member of his local district council in Cumbria, Neil has become a lay minister in his church. He is currently not in a relationship, but he speaks warmly of his many friends.
Life Goes On
56 Up is perhaps the most joyful in the series since Seven Up, largely because all the participants seem truly happy about their lives. I can imagine that the next segment might be quite different. Statistically one of them is likely to die in the next seven years. Bruce may not be playing cricket as avidly; Andrew and his wife may not be able to keep up the heavy-duty gardening they do at their second home. Adding poignancy is the knowledge that Michael Apted, now 72, may not be able to film another.
So, fellow boomers, do yourself a favor and watch 56 Up, even if you haven’t seen any of the prior films. Apted catches us up on each person and includes snippets from earlier episodes. As Nick’s wife, Cryss, says, “The idea of looking at a bunch of people over time and how they evolve was a really nifty idea. It isn’t a picture really of the essence of Nick or Suzy; it’s a picture of Everyman.”