7-Up 42-Up: Documenatry Films

British filmmaker Michael Apted has navigated between TV and Hollywood movies (Coal Miners Daughter, Nell, and even a James Bond picture) throughout his career, but nothing has been as important as the groundbreaking series of documentaries, made for TV, which follows the lives of fourteen British kids at seven-year intervals, from the time they were 7 up until middle-age.

Apted was a young researcher at Granada Television in 1963, when the project began. The goal of 7 Up was to examine the nature and effects of the rigid British class system. Apted chose 14 children from various socio-economic levels. The original group consisted of 10 boys and 4 girls; some of the children were orphans, and one was black.

7 Up

“7 Up” was filmed during a time when politicians predicted that Englands old class barriers would be coming down for good, soon. Granada TV and Apted, however, were not so sure. There were no plans for a follow-up when 7 Up was complete. However, everything changed when 7 Up became standard work in teachers’ colleges and psychology classes. As a result, child-development experts urged Apted, who by then had become a director, to film the same children at age 14. Apted saw it as a challenge but also a burden. For one thing, he was not a psychologist, and for another, he was not sure he was asking the right questions.

14 Up-21 Up

The sequels, 14 Up and 21 Up, were less successful than the first episode. Some of the children hid from the camera, while others appeared confused and inarticulate. Between 21 Up and 28 Up, Apted’s career flourished, but he also came back to the evolving project. Using footage from the three prior films, 28 Up caught fire, and even got theatrical release after popular festival showings. Apted believed that the films success derived from its greater humanistic focus, the fact that it showed the youngsters making crucial decisions about their career, marriage, and family.

28 Up

28 Up offered the unique opportunity to measure the dreams and aspirations of children, adolescents, and young people against the harsh outside reality. The four women in the film claim to have fulfilled their biological function by having children. For Apted, the women were on a different timetable than the men. As their own children got older, they had to make a serious choice of whether or not they would sit home and watch the world go by.

Despite expectations, In England, lower-middle and the lower classes were still hurting. All you hear in America, Apted said at the time, is about Yuppies, but when you get out of New York and L.A., you find that these young people are being hung out to dry. Its a voice you don’t hear often in the media, the voice of lower-middle class kids who grew up on a wave of the brave new world, hope, and the rest. Apted believed that in the U.S. and particularly in Britain, these people are now stuck, there’s stagnancy about them, which is tragic. The tragedy stemmed from observing children, who are bright, hopeful, and spontaneous at 7 and 14, become progressively more bitter and disillusioned as they grow up.

That said, Apted felt that one of the film’s subjects, Tony, would end up in prison because of the pressures on him. At 21, Tony was a runner for a bookie, after a failed career as a jockey. To Apteds surprise, he turned out to wrong: At 28, Tony became a cabbie and a happy father with a wife and two children.

Apted’s major regret about the series was the paucity of women: Only 4 out of 14. He thinks he should have chosen more girls in 1963. In the later chapters, as a substitute, Apted used the wives of some of the male subjects. Two of the three boys from the upper-class dropped out of 28 Up. One was a barrister, the other, ironically, a documentary filmmaker. The third upper-class boy, who at 7 wanted to be a missionary in Africa, lived in a poor section of London, where he taught math to immigrant children. Apted sighed with relief: There was at least one act of class rebellion among his subjects.

With all the praise, the film series was not beyond or above criticism, some by the participants themselves. From the beginning, there were concerns that the kids lives would be seen as an extended soap opera. Some of the subjects disliked the idea of people perceiving their lives as a grand entertainment pattern. One of Apted’s most difficult tasks was to convince his subjects to grace the cameras againand again. Significantly, some of those who dropped out did so because of problems in handling the press. Other subjects had doubts about their growing exposure and the increasing loss of privacy.

One subject accused Granada Television of dwelling on cliches, of flogging the same issues with too many sequels. Another claimed that, in the intervening years, the images have become slightly distorted and too simplistic. On the other hand, one subject used 35 Up to draw attention to the worsening situation in Bulgaria; his great-great-grandfather was Bulgarias first Prime Minister.

35 Up

35 Up had different dynamics, emphasizing the children of the subjects and the death of their parents. It showed strong evidence of the life cycle, with births and deaths. Since some of the subjects children are young, the passing of wisdom is very moving. For Apted, 35 Up was the most humanitarian segment because it dealt with more personal issues, like growing up, success, and failure.

42 Up

In 42 Up, the latest installment of Apteds extraordinary series, the subjects head into middle age. This films fascination comes from its time-lapse vision of the subjects lives. The privileged children, snobby as 7-year-olds, archly cynical as teens, are now well-off adults, while the poor ones, including two from orphanage, still struggle to make ends meet. In this context, the newfound stability of Neil, last seen as a social misfit in 35 Up, makes for one of the most gratifying moments of 42 Up.

The 7 Up films series recorded what life in England was like while it was being lived. England’s class system shapes the films as much as it shapes the individual lives at their center. With the series, Apted has accomplished something that has no cinematic equivalent in longevity or scope. Apted conducted all the interviews, placing each person in his/her own context in brief scene-setting shots. Most of the screen time is devoted to straightforward interviews. For better or for worse, Apted’s seven-year visits have become an integral part of the subjects lives.

Indeed, the films have changed the subjects in subtle ways. The adults are no longer quite the representative types they were as children. There is the issue of notoriety, which only increases after each telecast. Theres also the necessity at regular intervals to examine one’s life in the kind of critical mode otherwise done only when one is in therapy. More importantly, its never clear how the subjects have modified their values and behaviors because of their participation in the film series.

The films have changed over time–along with their subjects and their director. Over the years, the Up films have given continuity to Apted’s own life and career. They continue to impress as a telling depiction of the British class system. Apted has always claimed that the class issue is central to the film–the programs spine. The proof: Few of the subjects have become upwardly mobile in significant ways.

The passage of time is the series most obvious subtext, as each film glances back to material contained in the earlier chapters. The subjects marry, have children, and age. The film’s premise is taken from the Jesuit maxim, Give me the child until he is 7, and I will give you the man. It is also shaped by England’s class structure, which presents limitations. It is one of the series’ revelations that class attitudes and behaviors, which were thought to be in decline in the 1960s, have not much changed.

Apted sees beyond the sociological context, achieving rare poignancy by presenting ordinary lives. And not being an anthropologist or a psychologist is an advantage, because Apted is not interested in testing psychological or sociological hypotheses. And while his questions are sometimes tough and intimidating, for the most part, they are fair and necessary for such a project. In presenting these clear-eyed portraits, Apted accepts his subjects words at face value, avoiding value judgments or scientific analysis.

The 7 Up-42 Up series represents one of world cinemas most consistent social experiments, a cultural phenomenon that has inspired a book and many imitators. What began as an experiment about the effects of class has also become a social endurance test.

A labor of love and enlightenment, Apteds series is realistic in depicting the fear of failure, and also candid about other pertinent. Its a unique, epic documentary thats impressive in avoiding flashiness and sensationalism. Apted knows that theres nothing more effective than letting the footage speak for itself, and what a footage he has.

Its the kind of film that calls for active audience involvement, rooting for their subjects to achieve some happiness. Individually and collectively, the segments touched audiences wherever they played, giving educators and psychologists a rare longitudinal glimpse of the mysterious process of growing up, a process often distorted and glorified in mainstream features. After spending ten hours with these subjects, youre likely to experience bittersweet yet intensely emotional feelings. Youll share the hope and joy, anger and pain of youngster-adults whose very lives unfold in front of your own eyes.