seven up

No, this posting isn’t about the UnCola, one of the dominant brands of soda a few decades ago, now hanging on in obscurity.  Instead, it concerns one of the greatest film projects in history, which began in 1964 with the debut on British television of Seven Up!

The premise of the show came from Aristotle’s maxim: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”  The producers selected children of that age, interviewed them, and filmed them at school and at play.  Most came from opposite ends of that nation’s class divide; some of them predestined for elite schools by the circumstances of their births, while others were born into a hardscrabble existence.  A few came from what we might call middle-class backgrounds.

Seven years after that first documentary, the producers decided to see what had happened to them in the intervening time.  Flash forward a few decades and those youngsters, no longer young, have appeared in nine films, most recently 63 Up.

Since I’m a little more than a year older than the children that were featured, watching each installment was like revisiting my own life.  (The fictional characters at the center of the nineties TV series The Wonder Years had been given birth dates by the writers that were the same year as those appearing in the Up series, so that also had been a chance to relive my youth with Kevin and Winnie.  Including the tunes.)

Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  The films have followed the living forward — and the retrospective understanding — of fourteen people that were chosen at the age of seven.  It hasn’t always been easy for them to have the events of their lives tracked and made public, but with some exceptions here and there, they have continued to participate.  (Ironically, Charles, who became a documentary filmmaker like Apted, has refused to appear since he was 28.)

Across the span of years, the elements of life came forth, from dreams to dashed dreams, jobs, marriages, the loss of parents, the breakup of marriages, children, grandchildren, joy, and heartbreak.  Through it all, you get to know the people, and to see that for the most part Aristotle was right about their basic nature being observable at a young age, although watching their evolution over time reminds you that we can and do change in ways that otherwise aren’t always obvious.

There’s no getting around the importance of economic background in determining the future opportunities of those involved.  The paths that were open or closed to the subjects as a result have had consequences for a lifetime.  That’s a point of some discussion with those on both sides of the class divide.  Six decades on, the possibilities are arguably more widespread, but a lot of measures of inequality have worsened.

If a similar study was started today, no doubt there would be more girls involved (Apted was accused by some in the Up series of missing the changing roles of women over time) and minorities, but any small sample is an imperfect group on which to make sweeping demographic generalizations.  In any case, watching the series, you end up thinking most about the individuals, their lives, and your own.

I found myself growing closer to each of them over time, as my original pigeonholing of them into character types gave way to a greater understanding of each as they navigated the inevitable ups and downs that came their way.

The most tragic figure is Neil, who at seven was smiley and hopeful, but whose life has taken turn after turn, including homelessness, restlessness, and (it seems to this lay observer) mental health challenges.  Yet he has persisted and has a dogged determination in spite of all that he has endured.

Nick, referred to by one reviewer as “a dreamy little boy from an isolated farm in the Yorkshire Dales,” wanted to learn about the moon.  He grew up to be a physicist and a professor at the University of Wisconsin.  In 63 Up, he revealed that he had cancer in his throat — that took my breath away, since I did too around that time — and wasn’t sure that he wanted to be interviewed, but was.

All of them deserve space here, but I’ll let you learn about them on your own if you have an interest.

Roger Ebert had put 28 Up among his ten greatest films of all time, and saying that after it “will come 35 Up.  And so the film will continue to grow . . . 42 . . . 49 . . . 56 . . . 63 . . . until Apted or his subjects are dead.”  And here we are.

The first of the “children” to die was Lynn, in 2013.  And Michael Apted, the director of all of the films but the first one (he was an assistant on that) passed away at the start of this year.  It may be that the series has come to an end.

Jackie, who sparred with Apted over time, foreshadowed that end when she told him during her last interview, “This is me, I’m done.  Because I’m not having somebody else sitting in that chair and somebody else sitting behind the cameras.  I wouldn’t be able to trust them the way I trust all of you.”  Despite their differences, she talked about their relationship:  “I know you care about me, and I care about you, but that didn’t stop me having to have a go at you.  Well, we’re a family, families fall out, families have arguments, but we are a family.”

A lot can happen in seven years.  Using the specific blocks of time that framed the films, I thought about the chapters of my own life and how divergent they have been, what has been gained and lost in each, the big changes that have occurred within them, and how I have come out different in some respects and yet the same too.

Adjusting the frame to today and looking back seven years, I got cancer and then got cured (two months ago, my doctors told me that I “graduated” and that I don’t have to return unless I get symptoms); have endured some business challenges and also have had some successes; stayed inside for most of a year (and let my hair go, then got my hair cut); lost my mom, relatives, and friends, and — to my everlasting dismay — did not attend the services for some of them; started writing this blog and then inexplicably left you hanging for six months; and was blessed with a grandchild.

And more.  Not exactly movie material, I know, but you have quite a list too.  If we put yours together with mine, and those of a few others, we could tell the story of our time.  No doubt wellsprings of emotion would be tapped, as we tried to make sense of it all and what it means for the moment we have right now.

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