In 1964, 14 British children, age 7, were filmed for a television show called 7 Up. Jumping off from the maxim "give me the child until he is 7 and I will show you the man," the show interviewed the youngsters — who were intentionally chosen from varied social, geographic and economic backgrounds — about their lives and plans for the future. Were their lives already pre-determined by their circumstances?
Subsequently, director Michael Apted (who had been a researcher on 7 Up) returned every seven years to re-interview the kids-turned-adults, following them through the personal (jobs, marriages), while history unfolded around them. The Up Series, now in its eighth update in 56 Up, has itself evolved into a compelling ongoing project, variously a documentary, cultural anthropology and a more thoughtful (but no less entertaining) form of what we now know as reality TV.
7 Up concluded by intoning: "This has been a glimpse of Britain's future." Now much of that future has been recorded. The series provides too small a sample to draw any conclusions from — there were working-class kids who prospered, private-school kids who floundered, and others who adhered more closely to what was expected of them. But as an anecdotal document of how 14 people grew up and adapted to five decades of change, it's fascinating. (Unforeseen in 1964: Britain's multicultural society and the changing role of women.)
The current check-in finds the 56-year-old subjects dealing with typical mid-life issues, such as aging bodies, empty nests and grandchildren. But there are new external concerns, such as the impact of the recent economic downturn and the austerity measures that are shredding Britain's social safety net. (Nearly all the parents, regardless of their economic status, feel that life will be more difficult for their children.)
To enjoy 56 Up, one needn't have seen the previous films, as Apted includes ample background material. Obviously, those who have followed the whole series will be eager to see how the gang is getting on, and how they've weathered the changing times (as we all have).
What's especially interesting about this episode is how reflective the subjects have become — about their participation in the project, the show's original premise and whether there's been any larger value to the series. Several participants complain that the series has inaccurately depicted them, even accusing Apted of cherry-picking footage to keep his thesis viable.
But Nick, the farmer's lad turned professor, concedes to a workable compromise: "The idea of looking at people over time and how they evolve — that was a really nifty idea. ... It's not an absolute picture of me, but it is a picture of somebody — and that's the value in it."