7-Up-56-Up: Apted’s Landmark Series

Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.

First Run Features has just released one of the most seminal work in film history: Michael Apted’s 7-Up series. This landmark DVD edition consists of 10 hours of viewing, or six chapters spanning four decades of British social history, from 1963 to the present. I can’t think of any other documentary that embraces such scope and tackles so candidly the painful issue of the effects of the British class system on the lives of a group of youngsters.

            Despite the fact that American society is now more polarized along class lines than ever before—the gap between the haves and haves not has increased—most of us feel more comfortable talking about race and gender than about class—perhaps a result of the strong emphasis on upward mobility, and the rags-to-riches” myth. England, however, is a totally different society, where social class still features prominently—in myth, reality, and even entertainment.
Apted was a young researcher at Granada Television in 1963, when the film project of “7-Up” began. The goal was to present a critical perspective of the rigid British class system. Apted chose 14 children from a variety of socio-economic levels: 10 boys and 4 girls. Some of the children were orphans, and one was black.
            7-Up was filmed during a time when it was thought that the old class barriers in England might be coming down for good. Granada TV, however, wasn’t so sure. Initially, there were no plans for a follow up film when 7 was complete. However, 7-Up became standard work in teachers’ colleges and psychology classes.   Years later, child development experts urged Apted, who by then had become director at Granada, to film the same children at 14. Apted saw this as a challenge, but also as a burden because he is not a psychologist; he also wondered whether he was asking the right questions.
            In fact, the sequel, “14-Up,” was far less successful. The children hid from the camera and appeared confused and self-absorbed. The third installment, 21-Up, proved to be more successful. 
           Between 21 and 28-Up, Apted’s filmmaking career flourished, but he came back to make 28. Two of the 14 subjects refused to be in 28-Up, one a barrister, the other, ironically, a documentary filmmaker. 
“28-Up,” which uses footage from the three prior films. caught fire, and even got theatrical release after successful festival showings. Apted believed that the success derived from the fact that the docu showed human beings making major decisions about their lives: careers, marriage, children. It offered the unique opportunity of measuring the dreams of children, adolescents and young people against reality.
           The four women in the film have fulfilled their biological function by having children. For Apted, the women were on a different timetable than the men. As their children get older, they had to make serious choices: Will they sit home and watch the world go by?
In England, lower-middle and lower classes are hurting. All you hear in America, Apted says, is about Yuppies, but when, he believes, you get out of New York and LA, 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 in the 1960s and 1970s on a wave of the brave new world, the education, the hope and the rest. Those people, Apted believes, are now stuck. There’s a stagnancy about them and its tragic. There is a tragedy in the film, children who are bright, hopeful and spontaneous at 7, become progressively more disillusioned, less alive as they grow up.
   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 at 21, after a failed career as a jockey. Apter, however, was wrong: At 28, Tony became a cabbie, and a happy father with a wife and two children. 
      Apted’s major regret in the series was the paucity of women (4 out of 14). He flet he should have chosen more girls in 1963, but it was before the feminist movement. In the later chapters, as a substitute, Apted uses the wives of some of the male subjects Two of the three boys from the upper-class dropped out of 28. One is a barrister, the other (ironically) is a documentarian for the BBC. The other upper-class boy, who at 7 wanted to be a missionary in Africa, lived in a poor section of London and taught math to immigrant children. There was at least one act of class rebellion among the subjects.
            The film touched audiences all over the world. It gave educators and psychologists a rare longitudinal glimpse of the mysterious process of growing up.
Over the years, the ‘Up’ films have given continuity to Apted’s own life and career. 14 and 21 Up did not do particularly well, the kids were inarticulate, spotty, and removed. 28 Up was, however, very popular, particularly in the US
The lives of these 14 people can be seen as a sort of extended soap opera, The subjects disliked thinking of their lives in terms of some grand entertainment pattern. One of Apted’s most difficult tasks was to convince his subjects to grace the cameras once again. Some of those who have dropped out of the films did so because of troubles they had with the press, their own doubts about the value of exposing themselves, and the loss of privacy. 
There have been criticisms of the series by its participants. One subject accused Granada Television of dwelling of cliches, and flogging the subject to death with sequels. Another claimed that in the intervening years the images have become slightly distorted and and a tad too simplistic. That said, still another subject used “35 Up” to draw attention to the worsening situation in Bulgaria (his great-great-grandfather was the first Prime Minister of Bulgaria).
The films have changed over time, along with their subjects. 28 Up impressed many as a telling depiction of the British class system. 35 Up has a different dynamic, by emphasizing the children of the subjects, and the death of their parents. There is strong evidence of the life cycle, with births and deaths. 
The footage is increasingly cyclical. Since some of the subjects’ children are young, the passing of wisdom is very moving. Apted believes that class issue is still central to the films—the program’s spine. The class element now is more of a given. Apted does not think anybody becomes more mobile or has got out of various restrictions or benefits. 
For Apted, 35 Up was 28 Up with more humanitarian, more personal issues. It’s about growing up, about success, and failure.
The 7 Up films attempt to record what life in England is like, while it is being lived. In 1963, Apted helped to find the subjects who would represent a cross section of English society, and has directed most of the 7 Up films since then. England‘s class system shapes the films as much as it shapes the lives that the films record.
With these films, Apted accomplished something that has no cinematic equivalent in longevity or scope. One has to go back to the 60’s, to “The Children of Sanchez,” or “La Vida” to find anything similar. 
Apted conducts all the interviews in 35 Up, which places each person in his/her own context in brief scene-setting shots, but most of the running time is devoted to straightforward interviews. Something is also at work in this film: for better or worse, Apted’s seven year visits have become a part of the lives of his subjects. Some of them dread participation in the project, but only 3 of the original 14 have dropped out of 35 Up. 
The films have changed the subjects in subtle ways. The adults are no longer quite the representative types the children were. There is the notoriety issue, they receive after each seven year telecast, but also the necessity at regular intervals to examine one’s life in the kind of detail otherwise demanded only on the psychiatrist’s couch.
Time’s passage is the most obvious subtext of the series as each film glances back to material contained in the earlier chapters. The subjects marry, have children, and acquire age lines.
The film’s premise, taken from the Jesuit maxim: give me the child until he is 7, and I will give you the man, is also shaped by England‘s class structure. It limits but it also directs. It is one of the series’ revelations that class attitudes and manners, which were though to be on their way out in the 1960’s, have not, in fact, much changed. 
Apted is not an anthropologist or a psychologist, which may be to the advantage of these films because he’s not out to test any hypotheses or theories. And while his questions are sometimes tough, for the most part, they are not intimidating. 
The result of this series of clear-eyed portraits in a style that might be called post-modernist realism. Apted accepts his subject’s word, he makes no value judgments, and does not analyze. 
            In 42 Up, the latest installment of Apted’s extraordinary documentary-series, the subjects head into middle age. Intended as an exploration of how England’s entrenched class structure predetermines adult success, the film’s fascination comes more from its time-lapse vision of the subects’ lives. The privileged children (hilariously snobby as 7-year-olds, archly cynical as teens) are now well-off adults, while the poor ones (including two from Dickensian orphanage) still struggle to make ends meet. Apted sees beyond the sociological premise to the individual, achieving a rare poignancy by presenting their sheer ordinariness. Neil, last seen as a jittery social misfit in “35 Up”whose newfound stability as 42 makes for one of the film’s most gratifying moments.
Apted’s sixth feature broadcasted in the U.K. in the summer of 1998. Film’s most consistent social experiment. Has produced a cultural phenomenon that inspired a book and imitations. The film reflects its long, weary journey to print. What began as an experiment involving the effects of class on fate has become a social endurance test. It is an audience pleaser, the crowd will root for their favorites to find happiness. Docu is bitter sweetand a reversal of fortune that is shocking. Very realistic in portraying the fear of failure and candid about other issues.