Tuesday, February 7, 2012

It's Been Another Seven Years

In 1964, the British current affairs program "World in Action," produced by Granada television, devoted a half hour to fourteen children from various different socioeconomic backgrounds, all aged seven. John, Andrew, and Charles were pupils at an elite prep school. Jackie, Lynn, and Susan went to primary school together in a working class neighborhood. Symon and Paul were at a charity home. These children would become the leaders of the country in the year 2000, the narrator informed us, and thus provided a glimpse into the future. In itself, this little documentary short wasn't anything special. The children were interviewed, some together and some separately. They were asked leading and provocative questions which elicited a variety of responses about politics, race, and education. The children were all brought together for one day to interact with each other, first visiting a zoo, then enjoying a small party, and finally amusing themselves at a playground, where the program concluded with the narrator reciting, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." All very well and good, but it was what happened next that was extraordinary.

Seven years later, when the children were fourteen, the filmmakers went back to interview all of their subjects. Seven years after that, when they were twenty-one, they did it again. All together, seven documentaries have been produced since 1964, following the children from the ages of seven to forty-nine. A new installment is anticipated later this year, as the remaining participants are now fifty-six. This is the "Up" series, so named because the original "World in Action" short was titled "Seven Up!" and most of the later films follow the same naming convention, with "35 Up," "42 Up," and so on. All but the first have been directed by Michael Apted, and his task has not been an easy one. The children have all grown up and gone on to lead unpredictable lives. There have been marriages, divorces, and children. Two participants no longer reside in the UK. Some have very successful careers, while others have struggled, and a few have required help from the state. In the mix are two solicitors, two in academics, a librarian, a cab driver, a politician, and manual laborers. Nearly all of them still remain in the same socio-economic circles that they started out in, a subject repeatedly discussed in the films.

The original program emphasized differences based on class and opportunities, but the political and social aspects of the series become less and less important as time goes on, and the films become about simply documenting lives. The experience of watching the "Up" series in sequence is extraordinary. It's difficult to form impressions of the children in "Seven Up!" because they're on the screen so briefly. However, as they start growing up, you get to know them and become invested in their lives. Archival footage is mixed in with the new interviews in every installment, often the same clips or sequences of clips, building on each other, so you can see the people's progression through the years. It's always a little jolting when we are re-introduced to another familiar face, suddenly seven years older. The most dramatic changes in appearance happen in the first few films, but major life events happen constantly. Sometime we'll find a participant married to someone different, or living in another country, or the father of five children. After a while, you'll look back at the archival sections, and be able to recognize the adult you've become familiar with in the seven-year-old on the playground.

Watching the "Up" series today, I find the most fascinating thing about it is the way that certain cultural mores and expectations have changed. The films' subjects are from my parents' generation, and all four women in the group got married by their mid-twenties. Two became single parents, really the first generation for which this was a fairly common occurrence. And though class boundaries are still evident, there's clear social mobility in both directions. Tony, from the rougher East End of London, becomes comfortably middle class. Meanwhile Neil, who has the saddest arc in the series, goes from a bubbly little boy in middle-class Liverpool to a homeless itinerant by twenty-eight. At seven, the boys who went to prep school pretty accurately predict the courses of their academic careers, but as adults they remark that this would be impossible for their own children. Of course, some things stay the same for every generation. Everyone seems a little awkward at fourteen, and a little ungrounded and rebellious at twenty-one, and are complaining about the changing times by forty-nine.

And then there are the ethical considerations. Participation in the films is voluntary, and two of the original fourteen have stopped appearing completely, while others have chosen to sit out specific installments. Some seem to enjoy being part of the program, but others dislike the experience and say so. Some spouses appear in the interviews, while others do not. The complaints about unfair portrayals and manipulative editing are constant, occasionally creating dramatic confrontations on camera. It's fair to call the "Up" series akin to reality television, since the documentaries have affected the lives of its subjects, and made a few of them into reluctant celebrities. No one could have predicted the success and impact of the "Up" series, and the seven year-olds couldn't possibly have known what they were getting themselves into. Yet the fact that so many of those fourteen children are still participating in new installments every seven years reflects very well on the filmmakers.

The "Up" series has become one of those miraculous pieces of media that has far, far exceeded its original ambitions. Not knowing about the upcoming "56 Up," I'd assumed the series had stopped when the participants reached middle age, having passed beyond the year 2000 and become the future promised by the narrator in the original short. Now I'm tempted to want it to go on for a few more installments to chronicle the participants becoming older, which is as much a part of life as everything else we've seen on camera. Apted himself is still going strong at seventy-two years of age. Yet I also can't help feeling that these people have all spent enough time in front of the cameras, more than should be asked of anyone. I'd prefer to see a definite end to the series soon, rather than watching it drag on through people's inevitable declines and deaths. Maybe they could get everyone together for one last trip to the zoo or the playground, and then say goodbye for good.

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