“If I Could Change the World, I’d Change it into a Diamond”

Ian Jones on the Seven Up films

First published June 2000

“We’ve brought these children together because we wanted a glimpse of England in the year 2000.” So began an edition of Granada’s now sadly-defunct documentary series World in Action, filmed in 1963 and titled “Seven Up”. Taking as a premise the Jesuit saying “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man” the programme selected 14 children all aged seven from a variety of contrasting class, gender and ethnic backgrounds, and then asked them a series of questions about who they were, what they liked, what they thought of the world around them and most significantly, what they thought would happen to them in the future. It was intended that the children’s responses would test the validity of the Jesuit proverb – and afford the viewer a unique insight into how the significant question of nurture and upbringing impacted on the shape of a seven year old’s destiny. Coincidentally, the children were all the same age as Granada Television itself (which had begun broadcasting in 1956).

Reflecting the influence of sociological methodology, the choice of subjects leant heavily on class distinction: of the 14, roughly six were working class or poor; four were upper class; four were notionally “middle class”. Only four were female; only one was black. Seven Up adopted a very straightforward question and answer format, quizzing each child in their respective learning environment, then throwing them altogether to watch the bemused collision of class and etiquette on a visit to London Zoo, at a party, and in an adventure playground. In doing so, however, the World in Action production team – including programme associates Paul Almond, Gordon McDougall and 22 year old researcher Michael Apted – created a piece of television which, unknowingly, provided the root for the development of easily the most ambitious, significant and influential television documentary project ever.

Unbelievably in retrospect, the original film was only ever perceived as a one-off with no thought given to checking to see if any of the 14 kids actually did realise their dreams by the year 2000. But at the end of the 1960s, Apted – now an established TV director working most recently on Coronation Street – proposed to Granada another one-off film returning to see how each of the children were progressing. Seven Plus Seven was shown in 1970, with Apted himself in charge as interviewer and director; since then, this cyclic concept – returning after each further seven year period – has, in Apted’s hands, resulted in a canon of individual documentaries unique in TV history. Twenty-One Up appeared in 1977; Twenty-Eight Up in 1984. Thirty-Five Up followed in May 1991, and most recently Forty-Two Up was shown in July 1998. All were Apted’s work; all made for Granada; and all save the last were shown on ITV (the network inexplicably rejecting it, so it ended up on BBC).

There are many reasons why I find this series so impressive. As a TV documentary, and one on an epic scale, it is peerless. One of the first things which most affected me about the project, watching Thirty-Five Up in a GCSE Humanities lesson at school in 1991, was to do with its mechanics: here is a series built around the whole notion of the passing of time, a constantly evolving entity, each sequential film conflating the essence of the past programmes within the context of what is being revealed here in the present.

What’s more, it’s a series that has survived a revolution in broadcasting and the media industry, spanning the chasm of change from a pre-BBC2 to a post-Channel 5 era. That this programme can still be made, and still be shown on terrestrial network television, is worth applauding in itself. It’s clear that the series only works as a series because of the continuity arising from Michael Apted’s involvement. The fact he was there from the start operates as a sort of credibility valve for the project: we trust Apted, he knows these people, he can make them talk, he can make a film which recognises all the significances in these peoples lives. None of the programmes talk down to the viewer.

Stylistically, each programme is remarkable. Apted is an exemplary filmmaker; on the one hand, his questioning remains the model of non-hysterical, focused, investigative journalism; on the other, his direction – editing together new footage with judicious selections from an ever expanding resource of archives – evocative, engaging and often very moving. Little touches like beginning each film with the original black and white World in Action title sequence and music add to the mystique and grandeur of the project.

Then there’s the people themselves. Of those half dozen “lower class” representatives, there’s Tony from the East End of London, who wants to be a jockey at seven, works in a stables at 14, and rides at Kempton before he was 21 (“all my ambition fulfilled in one moment.”) At 14 he declares that if he can’t make it long-term with the horses he’d become a cabby; he still drives a taxi at 42. Such foresight and confidence seems built on brazen self-assurance: “All I understand is dogs, prices, girls, the ‘Knowledge’, roads, streets, squares and Mum and Dad and love. That’s all I understand – all I want to understand,” he announces at 21. But come 42, and the death of his parents, the near collapse of his marriage, and the symbolic move out of London to leafy Essex suburbia, he seems more guarded, cautious: “I’ve done as well as I can go – I think this is about the limitations for me now.” Realising some form of stability, a plateau, some sort of reconciliation with life, is common to much of what the subjects say at 42.

Jackie, Lynn and Sue are one of two “trio’s” of subjects from similar backgrounds, in this case another East End school. While Lynn married young – at 19; “You do think, Christ, what have I done?” she confesses at 21 – she is still with her first husband; while Sue (married at 24) and Jackie (at 19) have both been through various relationships; all have children they are struggling to bring up, with or without help from older relatives. These three seem to have the strongest relationships with their children – openly loving and caring for them on screen, Sue stating she wants her kids to have “really satisfying” careers, something she’s “never had”.

The two other lower class kids are Symon and Paul, who at seven are in a London care home as only children of single parents. Both seem aware of their status as something socially “different” right from the start; “I had a dream when all the world was on top of me, and I just about got out, and everything flew up in the air and it all landed on my head,” Symon confides at seven. After working in a Walls’ freezer room and as a forklift truck driver, he is candid at 42 about “being in the wrong job for so long now”. We see him bringing up a large family and marrying twice, and now re-educating himself (having just passed GCSE Maths), apparently more at ease with his life than before. He is the only black subject of the series; Apted tries repeatedly to question him on notions of discrimination and what kind of prejudice he’s suffered – but, tellingly, Symon is subdued, almost indifferent, in his answers; his second wife more vociferous in recounting incidences of persecution. The other child from the care home, Paul, is still trying to master his lack of confidence. He moved back to Australia with his father before 14 and has stayed there, trying to find manual work to support his own family. He now speaks of moving gently into middle age and the pleasure of “growing old together” with his family. And like Tony, he has just moved “upmarket” into more affluent suburbia.

At the core of all the films is the contrast between this variety of working class subjects and parallel quartet of “upper class” figures. The second trio of school friends, John, Andrew and Charles, all appear painfully posh and snobbish at seven; “I read The Observer and The Times” intones John, before outlining faultlessly his exact path through √©lite private education through to his early 20s. These three later endeavour to appear very self-aware – Andrew at 21 dryly noting “Well we didn’t know very much when we were seven but at least we were funny.” This is true to an extent – John chiding at seven “My grandmother had an accident because a boyfriend was kissing his girlfriend in the street.” But come 14, wondering what the point of the programme is, he snaps, “The point of the programme is to reach a ‘comparison’, and I don’t think it is. We’re not necessarily typical examples; they tend to typecast us.” thereby missing the point of the whole series entirely. This trio of haughty preppies don’t help themselves by remaining stubbornly intolerant of Apted throughout. Indeed, John refuses to appear in Forty-Two Up, and only consents to be filmed for Thirty-Five Up to promote a Kurdish benefit recital. Worse, Charles refuses to appear in any of the films after Twenty-One Up; Apted waspishly informing us in a voice-over of his whereabouts by 1998 – none other than head of science documentaries at Channel 4 (but “he decided not to take part in this documentary,” Apted counters.)

Andrew has stuck with the project; at 42 he holds a high ranking law job, and takes his kids to NYC for a half-term holiday. “Just because you had the opportunities it doesn’t meant you’re necessarily going to pull through,” he argues with reference to his privileged background. But the evidence is revealed time and again, simply in the difference in standards of living (Andrew seems to live on near-estate size rural dwellings, Jackie in a council flat near Glasgow getting her mother-in-law to pay her bills). The other upper class subject – Suzy – appears nervous and depressed at 21, but is the happy mother by 42 with three kids and a comfortable home. She doesn’t “like babies” at 21 but at 42 states “All I want is to be alive long enough to see my children grow up.” It’s telling that while in most cases the kids appear endearing and affectionate at seven thanks to their charming innocent observations (“What does university mean?” pleads Paul), obvious exceptions are the four upper class kids, whose pronouncements and extremely plummy voices make you want to abhor them.

The other four subjects aren’t so easily categorised by class. Nick grew up as a farmer’s son in the Yorkshire dales but went to boarding school, read Physics at Oxford University and is now a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. He does not “fit” in with what his rural background might have ordained for his future; though he notes that his childhood fascination with how things worked – and his desire to “find out about the moon” at seven – prefigure his contemporary career in science. In Forty-Two Up he is filmed revisiting the village he was born and brought up in, finding his father coping with the collapse of the farming industry by selling up and retiring early. Nick is one of the most lucid and engaging characters in the series; at seven he announces “If I could change the world I’d change it into a diamond”; at 42 he concludes he had to move away from the Dales, for while being “enormously proud of coming from here”, “here” is not where he could realise his dreams and ambitions.

Bruce is at pre-prep school at seven; Oxford at 21; but gives up a career in insurance to teach in London’s East End. At 14 he explains how he doesn’t “agree with the Conservatives racial policy”; and at 42 now prides himself of being head of Maths at a multiracial, multicultural secondary school. He only got married in 1997; we see the ceremony (and the reception, in his back garden) during Forty-Two Up. He now talks of passing into middle age quite contentedly, and remains an unashamed optimist and confident with the future; Bruce resembles one of the most assuredly upbeat subjects in the films.

In utter contrast, the one figure whom has persistently invited the most emotional investment and concern from the viewer throughout the entire project has been Neil. His case is left to the end of Forty-Two Up to provide suitable dramatic weight and climax to the film; he moves from middle class Liverpool suburbia at seven and 14, to a London squat at 21; he’s homeless in West Scotland at 28, and then living in a council house on the Shetlands at 35. Physically downtrodden and destitute at this point, it became an issue whether or not he would actually survive from one film to the next; such was his condition that Bruce himself got in touch after Twenty-Eight Up, offered him a place to stay in London for a while, and they became close friends. Come Forty-Two Up, incredibly Neil is now Liberal Democrat councillor for Hackney; has done a Open University degree and courses to teach English as a foreign language; and is, for the first time in his life, “looking to the future”. Losing yourself in this kind of real life narrative, within this very unique conceit of a programme, is impossible to resist.

All of the subjects remain incredibly articulate and expressive about their condition at whatever age we meet them. One of the more long term trends is the way some of their accents – notably Neil’s Liverpool dialect, and in particular John and Suzy’s refined Queen’s English – have softened, almost to the point of disappearance. Watching the later episodes you realise how each film tends to have a common “theme” – Twenty-One Up on beginning life beyond education; Twenty-Eight Up coping with marriage; Thirty-Five Up the arrival of children; and most presciently in Forty-Two Up, dealing with mortality: for by this point, most of the subject’s parents are dead, and their talk is increasingly of reflecting on their own upbringing with a view to bringing their own kids up as best they can. I imagine Forty-Nine Up would centre on how the subjects are coping with their children growing up or in many cases having left home.

Mortality will remain a common factor now, of course; already two of the subjects, Lynn and Jackie, have serious illnesses (a brain malformation and rheumatoid arthritis respectively); when Apted ponders over the amount of hope they all had back in their early 20s, Jackie states “There still is (hope); don’t make that mistake Mike, I’m down and depressed about my illness but certainly not about my life … I can’t stop being (a) Mum just cos I’m not well.” But sadly it cannot be long before one of the 14 does pass away. Apted is 15 years older than his subjects; he will continue making each new instalment as long as he is alive, and there are enough willing participants to make the project worthwhile. And participation is a significant issue; for besides John and Charles, one other subject, the 14th child, refused to appear in Forty-Two Up – but curiously, unlike the other two his whereabouts aren’t even mentioned; in fact, no reference is made to him at all. In Thirty-Five Up he is a frustrated teacher in Leicester, but other than that, all is kept a mystery.

It would be a tragedy if this incredible epic did not continue through to its natural, obvious, end. Michael Apted must surely make provisions for someone to effectively inherit his project and see it through once he is no longer able to take part. It’s just as fascinating and enthralling to dwell on the huge period of time that has not only passed since the first film, but which is likely to elapse before the series ends – Forty-Two Up is, quite possibly, only the midpoint (Eighty-Four Up could still feature a majority of the original 14, given life expectancy, standards of living, advances in medicine etc.)

The commentary on Seven Up articulated the reasoning behind the programme by emphasising how “the shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old,” – as if shop stewards would still, as they were in 1963, be a hugely influential force in British society come the next century. In fact, rather than polarise into such a corporatist management-worker divide, by 1998 the 14 subjects now hold a variety of careers. One is unemployed; four work in education; one works in the media; two work in law; one works in local politics; one is a part-time councillor; one works in secretarial; two are manual labourers and one is a cabby. Aligning class, background etc. with these, in the manner the original programme invites, shows the six working class subjects by and large in blue collar/unemployment/secretarial jobs; the four upper class subjects in law, media or counselling; three of the “others” in teaching/education, plus Neil in local politics.

In the meantime, Apted is executive producer of three spin-offs: Age Seven in USA and Age Seven in Russia, which both started in 1991; plus Age Seven in South Africa which began in 1994. His involvement assures these side-projects a degree of depth and significance, but the same cannot be said for the other ever-growing rip-off series, all pale imitations of the original template – such as ITV’s Many Happy Returns returning to look at kids every five years from the age of 10; another Beeb spin-off Child of our Time fronted by the ubiquitous Dr. Robert Winston; Citizen 2000 on C4 (which seems to have been just forgotten about); plus this year, Seven Up 2000, starting the whole project over again – in the very year World in Action originally promised us “a glimpse of” back in 1963. I wonder how many of these series will last the distance; credit to the BBC I guess for committing themselves to – what is nowadays – an extraordinary long-term venture.

To try and sum up, as a study of the passing of time, and a means to encourage individual contemplation of your own life (watching it always makes me wonder how I would’ve appeared on screen at seven, 14 and 21, and how I could/should be at 28 …), the Seven Up films are utterly unique. While some of the subjects seem in two minds over their continuing participation (Suzy in particular complaining how “there’s a lot of baggage that gets stirred up every seven years for me that I find very hard to deal with,”) I suspect the longer the project continues the more they feel obliged to carry on. Lynn is most astute in observing how all 14 participants are linked, connected in a way “that can never go”. I don’t want them to go; I want to see the rest of these people’s lives, having had them mapped and charted and so effectively documented to date. 2005, and Forty-Nine Up, really can’t come soon enough.