Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The UP Series: Seven Up! / 7 Plus Seven / 21 Up/ 28 Up / 35 Up / 42 Up


Give me the child until the age of 7, and I will give you the man.
- Ignatius Loyola

This is without a doubt one of the highest achievements of documentary filmmaking, or of cinema of any sort, for that matter. (Since I wrote this, there has been a 49-Up and a 56-Up, reviewed elsewhere.)

In 1957 something like 250,000 children were born in England. In 1964 a British television network chose 14 of them (not as well as they should have, as the director admits in the DVD voice-over on 42 Up, but who knew?) and interviewed them. Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park and many other fine movies) was a researcher on the first one, and came up with the idea of revisiting them 7 years later in 7 Plus Seven, which he directed, as well as all the ones thereafter. I don’t think anyone in 1964 imagined the series would go to 1977, 1985, 1991, and 1998, but it did. It is now 2005, the children are now all 49, and Apted is trying to get as many as possible to commit to being interviewed yet again.

It might not be easy. As Apted says, it’s been a bit tough on some of them. They have gained a certain amount of fame, but none of the perks that go with it. Some have dropped out, and some have returned. Think about it. Would you want your life to be chronicled like that? Would you like your 7-year-old fantasies to be laid out for all to see, and then compared to what you actually did with your life? If you did exactly as you supposed you would (and some of these kids did), wouldn’t that be a tad depressing? I mean, did you ever have any choice? If you were a failure at your dream (and some of them are), would you want the whole world to see it? If your dream when you were seven was to work at Woolworth’s (one little girl’s dream), would you want that known?

The main thrust of the idea was to compare children from different social backgrounds, to explore the rigid class system in England, which is much, much more important than it is in America. Since it was conceived in the early ‘60s (we see the children discussing the haircuts of the Beatles) there are not as many girls as there ought to be, and Apted agrees that the middle class is underrepresented. They focus on the private school children and the lower class kids, including a few from an orphanage. The sample is not scientific by any means … but it doesn’t purport to be.

What it turns out to be is a study of people, and of stages of life. Sure, we start out interested in class. We note that the upper-class children at 7 are much more reserved and disciplined than the poor kids. The children are taken to an “adventure playground,” which looks like a dirt lot in your typical depressed neighborhood, full of splintery wood and rusty iron and a billion things you could hurt yourself on. (This was 1964, after all, we hadn’t yet decided that our children’s lives should be hazard-free.) The poor kids are mostly all over the place, and the rich kids hang back and observe, or play cautiously, taking the safe route. The kids from the orphanage immediately, and poignantly, begin to build a house with the scrap wood. You get the impression that the rich boys are more interested in mortgaging the house when it’s finished, and then foreclosing and turning the little ragamuffins into the street.

But soon you see the similarities as much as the differences.

You see the seasons of life. To everything there is a season. Turn, turn, turn.

You see … yourself, for better or worse.

At 7 they all have a bit of the devil in them.

At 14 they are shy and self-conscious, feeling out adulthood.

At 21 most are already far down the path their life will take, and mostly feeling self-confident, like the world will be their oyster and nothing bad could happen to them.

28 is the season for young families.

35 is the season of divorce.

By 42 you are quite unlikely to change, short of a major disaster.

Absolutely fascinating.

I had seen only one of these before, either 35 or 42, some years ago. Lee had seen them all, possibly on PBS. We decided to watch them all in order, one every other night. I highly recommend this. But if it’s too much for you—and I admit, it gets repetitious, since we have to recap each character in each film, and by 42 the recaps are getting longer and longer—I might suggest an alternative. Watch the first disc, which contains Seven-Up! and 7 Plus Seven. Neither of these are very long, about 45 minutes each. Then watch 42 Up. But if you possibly can, watch them all.


I’m going to write about each of the 14 now. If you want to discover the specifics of each child for yourself, you should stop here.

Tony: Most of the later films start here, with the pugnacious little East End scrapper who wants to be a jockey. He does become one, briefly, rides in three pro races including one with the fabulous Lester Piggott (think Eddie Shoemaker). But he has to give that up. He tackles “The Knowledge,” which is an incredibly tough process of learning absolutely every street, mews, byway and dead end in the London Metro Area. (In New York you can step off a plane and jump into a cab owned by your third cousin and bang! you’re a hack driver. Not in London.) He masters it, marries, has kids, his wife becomes a driver, too, and they keep the cab running 16 hours per day to make ends meet. At 42 he is comfortably lower-middle-class and doing fairly well, though deeply in debt for a new house. He acknowledges that he’s come as far as he’s going to go … and it’s a lot farther than he had a right to expect, but you sense regrets. I like Tony a lot, even if the stupid sod did cheat on his wife.

Suzy: At 7, Suzy comes off as a terribly spoiled bitch. “Do you know any coloured people?” “No, and I don’t want to, thank you very much.” She plans to have 2 children and have a nanny raise them. Her family owns an estate in Scotland where she rides. At 16 she leaves her private school and drifts to Paris and various places. At 21 she is bored and boringly cynical about her life and life in general. She wants no children. I’m starting to get a serious hate-on for her. She had every chance in the world and sits there, this rich little snot, wasting it all. Then she meets Rupert and has children … and transforms herself into a caring and introspective person. She bitterly regrets wasting her teens. By 42 she is learning grief counseling. She is not exactly what you’d call warm, at least in the film, her prissy upbringing seems to get in her way, but to her credit she realizes it. Rarely have I had a chance to come to like anyone so much after disliking her so intensely. Which is the wonder of these movies. The child does not always prefigure the adult.

Nick: Apparently thrown in as a wild card. All the other children are from town; Nick is being raised on a sheep and cattle farm and goes to a one-room school in Yorkshire. He wants to “learn about the moon, and all that.” At 14 he is almost terminally shy, hiding his head between his knees as he’s interviewed. There are questions he’d prefer not to answer, even at 7. And by golly, he does go to University, gets a Ph.D. in physics. He moves to Madison, Wisconsin, and works in fusion research. He may be the brainiest and one of the most successful, though not in monetary terms (which he doesn’t care about) of the bunch, and he had no advantages growing up. He is married and they have one child, but after appearing in 28, his wife feels she came off badly and doesn’t show up with him in the next two. He is devastated that the family farm is going to die, he feels a strong connexion to it, but he doesn’t wish to be a farmer and neither do his brothers, one of whom is deaf.

Symon: Chosen as one of a pair of kids in a children’s home, along with Paul. Symon is mixed race and his father split before he was born. His mother has problems of some sort, is unable to take care of him, He seems to have few ambitions. When they ask him what he’d like to do in life, he says he’ll walk around, see what’s happening. He ends up as a labourer, marries, has five kids, divorces, marries again. At 42 he seems happier than he’s been, but it’s clear he’s going nowhere, or at least that his social position will not improve. I hope that’s enough for him, and it seems to be. But what about 49?

Paul: At 7, asked whether he plans to go to university, Paul makes the producers of the film very, very happy by asking “What is university?” It’s a golden line, perfect for this documentary. He was only a year in the children’s home, then he went with his father to Australia, where he instantly shed his cockney accent and became an Aussie through and through. He didn’t continue his education very far and became a bricklayer, tried to start his own contracting business but it failed, and worked his way up to the middle class in the building trades. He and his wife love the outdoors, love Australia, have a bright child and one with learning disabilities. They seem well-grounded and happy.

The East End Gals:
Jackie: In this series there are two sets of three children who are treated as such throughout. This makes it a little hard for me to remember which is which, but they always seat them in the same order for the group interviews, so I think of them as The One On the Left, On the Right, and In the Middle. Jackie is on the left. These are East End girls, broad accents: “nuffink” for “nothing,” “innit” where an American slum kid would say “know what I’m saying,” that peculiar way of swallowing the T sounds in words. The big decision in their lives is whether to go to grammar school—which in England is preparatory for college—or “comprehensive” school, which prepares you for a career. It turns out not to have made a lot of difference. All three end up with families. Jackie holds out the longest on having children, but eventually she does and ends up a single mother in a Council flat that looks very dreary, with rheumatoid arthritis, no money, and kids to raise. Not a very promising future.

Lynn: In the middle. She can be very blunt. Asked about her early marriage, she asks aloud, “Christ, wha’ ‘ave I done?” She has various jobs, all of them connected to libraries in one way or another. She has two beautiful daughters who will probably have a lot more options than she had. She has a growth on her brain that could kill her at any moment, has blackouts from time to time, but seems not to worry about it too much. That’s what she says, anyway.

Sue: Girl on the right, and the prettiest. Pretty much the same story. Various jobs, children, divorce. At 42 she has a job and likes to sing in karaoke bars. All three girls deny being too jealous of the kids who had a lot of advantages, but I think they do protest a bit too much. All three very well might have had much better, and surely much easier, lives if they had been born to wealth.

The Public School Boys:

John: The boy on the left, which is totally wrong for him as he’s been a rock-ribbed Tory from the moment he left his mum’s womb, where he astounded the doctors by appearing in a three-piece suit and tie and announcing his support for Maggie Thatcher. We first see him at the zoo in 1964, where the producers have brought all the children. One of the scrappy East Enders is throwing things at the polar bear. “Stop that at once!” John demands, in a voice born to command. He’s 7! All three of the boys know exactly where they are going: Charter House, Trinity College, Eton, Cambridge, Oxford, etc, etc. In most cases they are exactly right, and the slight variations are, to my mind, trivial, as I can’t distinguish Oxford from Cambridge. John wants to read law, and he does, and ends up a barrister and Q.C., whatever that is. Lee googled him (which I’m sure he would not have appreciated; one simply doesn’t, you know?) and found he is quite the powerful man in 2005. He dropped out at 28 Up, but came back at 35 because he wanted to publicise his Help Bulgaria charity, then didn’t appear again in 42. Turns out he’s half Bulgarian, and he married the Bulgarian Ambassador’s daughter. They seem to be doing good work with orphans in the aftermath of the communist horror there, and yet we find he is working hard as well at reclaiming some of his family’s holdings confiscated by the Reds. It is impossible for me to like John. He is everything I find insufferable about the snooty Brit, with a deep sense of entitlement to everything he was born into, sort of an Andrew Lloyd Webber without the musical talent (though he does play the piano). He feels that factory workers get outrageous wages and could “well afford” to send their children to private schools if only they wanted to; just scrimp a little. At 7, he wanted to abolish labour unions, and probably the entire Labour Party. But such is the appeal of this series that I feel a certain affection even for John, who is by far the least likeable of the 14.

Andrew: The middle boy. At 7, he reads the Financial Times, because he has shares in it. All three boys are aghast at the idea that poor children might be admitted to their school. Bankruptcy! The masters won’t be able to pay the teachers! By 14 Andrew seems calmer, more liberal, and in fact is settling into the good, gray existence that will be the rest of his life. He’s aware of the advantages he had, says he feels bad about it in a way, but doesn’t know what to do about it. Neither do I. His is a comfortable, quiet existence with his wife, a down-to-earth Yorkshire lass, as she describes herself. At 42, they seem unlikely to change, and unlikely to want to, unless one is clobbered by a mid-life crisis.

Charles: The right boy, and again, an irony. At 14 he is showing signs of hippiness, and at 21 he is a long-haired and pretty liberal artistic sort. He wants to write. And that’s the last we see of him. He becomes a documentary filmmaker for the BBC, we are told, and we see a few photos of an intense, thin man. Odd that a documentarian would check out of one of the greatest documentaries of all time, but I can certainly see that some would see the Up series as an invasion of privacy. As John says: “Every 7 years, a bitter pill to swallow.” Suzy agrees, saying it always brings up issues she’d rather forget.

Bruce: Probably the best human being of the bunch. At 7 he says: “My heart’s desire is to see my daddy who is 6000 miles away.” When asked what he’d like to do with his life, he says “I’d like to go to Africa and find people who are not civilized and make them, more or less, better.” Racist and colonialist, sure, but his heart’s in the right place. And he’s a quick learner. He goes to Oxford (or Cambridge, who cares?) where he reads maths. He becomes a teacher of immigrant children in London, then at 28 goes to Bangladesh, where he teaches. At 35 he is still teaching, but back in London. He finally marries at 42. The world could use a lot more people like Bruce. He knows he can’t solve all the world’s problems, but he’s doing more than his bit. Amazing, because he is from a background very much like the Public School Three. He went to a boarding school, where we see him being chivvied and kicked into line by another student, a real sadist, apparently auditioning for the part of Adolf Hitler in the school play. What a weird place and awful place to grow up! Everything is by the numbers and military precision. Seems to me it takes real character to endure that and come out of it very much your own man with your own ideas.

Peter: This young man was one of a pair from Liverpool, the other being the undeniable star of the show: Neil, see below. He never really makes a big impression, and for whatever reason he does not show up after 28. In fact, Apted doesn’t even include any updates, which seems to indicate that he not only didn’t want to participate further, but didn’t even want his image used anymore. I’ve got to respect that.

Neil: Or, as Lee always puts it, “Poor lost Neil.” At 7 he’s as brash and talkative and opinionated as any of them, more than some. But there is absolutely no hint that I can see of what he will become.

This is the most frightening segment of these movies.

By 14 he’s already starting to look a little odd, there is a hesitancy about him. He still feels he will be going to university. But he fails to make the cut.

At 21 he is doing casual, pick-up labor, dressed in rags, living in a squat with no heat. He rocks back and forth as he talks. His words make sense, though they tend to sort of spill out of him, and they don’t add up to much. He is not a loony, but he clearly has mental problems. Lee and I feels it’s one of those imbalance things that might, might be cured chemically. I won’t venture a diagnosis, but it is clear he’s on a road that leads to pushing a shopping cart down back alleys, eating out of garbage cans.

At 28 he’s farther down that road, living in an empty caravan in a tiny town in Scotland. We see him walking at an urgent pace through the rain, hitching rides, carrying two suitcases. He hasn’t had a job in years. He’s hardly looking. Apted asks him if any doctors have taken a look at him, and we gather that they tried to medicate him but he didn’t like it.

At 35 he has retreated about as far as it is possible to go in Great Britain without landing in Norway. Running from something, obviously. I think what he’s running from is himself, and wherever he goes, there he is. Where he is this time is the Shetland Islands. He’s living in a Council flat, on the dole. Apparently all he’s doing is volunteering at the community theater. He directed the previous year’s production, but was not asked to repeat the effort, most likely because he’s the sort who would argue endlessly about every tiny detail and never get the big picture. He looks like hell, and his characteristic herky-jerky walk—the same walk you can see in any skid row in America—has become almost a run. Every fourth step he breaks into a trot. Apted asks him flat out if he fears going mad. He says he already has.

Then he is 42, and a small—very small, as it turns out—miracle. He returned to London and got in contact with … Bruce! He crashed on his couch for a few months (where he did things like unplug the fridge because it was too noisy), and then with Bruce’s help ran for town council in some remote borough whose name I can’t recall. And he is elected! We see him at a town council meeting, droning on and on about something … and realize that a lot of things haven’t changed. No one is listening to him. I believe his job doesn’t really amount to much. He is basically one of those characters known to every city council in the world, the kind who wastes their time with minutiae, a guy with a bee in his bonnet. The kind of guy for whom the 5-minute time limitation at the microphone was invented. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very happy that poor, lost Neil has something to do, even if it’s only handing out election handbills, even if the post is unpaid, even if he’s still living in a Council flat. He is clean, and wearing decent clothes, he no longer looks like a tramp. He can at least feel that his life has meaning … and maybe it does.

He’s one of the main reasons I hope there is a 49 Up, and I think most people would agree. What is poor lost Neil doing in the 21st Century?

DVD Extras.

Some reviewers complained that there weren’t a lot of these on the first videos. Michael Apted makes up for it in 42 Up, where there is director’s commentary behind the movie. I think this is enough. Sure, there are miles of outtakes, but as he explains, each frame that made it to the films is the result of a carefully considered directorial decision, so including that stuff wouldn’t be a good idea.

What he does in his commentary is get into the process of the films. He has become a part of these people’s lives, he doesn’t just pop up every 7 years and poke his camera into their faces. Apted is brutally honest here, telling how he screwed it up with some of them, and just how far he’ll go to persuade the subjects to appear again, or to try to pick them up again after a 14-year absence. He uses his film budget to take Nick and Paul and their families from America and Australia back to England; small perks, considering what he’s put them through.

And here we learn what happened to Peter, and it’s an ugly story. In 28 Up Peter was working as a teacher and made some frankly political comments regarding what a total piece of shit the current Madame Prime Ministress was, and he was crucified in the tabloid press. “Is this the sort commie rat bastard we want teaching in our schools?” You know the scene, the usual scrum of semi-human garbage staking out his home, terrorizing him every time he showed his face. He had to resign, and said, sensibly, “Never again!” Apted very much regrets all that, though it wasn’t his fault, and still tries to get Peter back. Once, visiting him, Peter takes him to task. Why don’t you make good, important films, like Alan Parker does, instead of that awful James Bond crap? (Unfairly, because Apted has made some wonderful films, and Parker has made a few stinkers, too, along with some of my favorites. But Peter is bitter, lashing out, and who can blame him?) Of course, Apted knows Parker, considers him a friend, and gets Parker to call Peter and try to convince him to rejoin the series. In vain, but it shows you Apted will try anything so long as it isn’t dirty.

He says he sees this series as the most important thing he’s ever done, flawed as it is, and he’s right.