It's one of the best research documentary ideas ever. And it makes for some of the most fascinating television I've ever watched. I wish I had a similar record of my own family, my own communities. Apparently the model has been copied in several countries around the world, including the US, Russia, and South Africa, but until doing a little web-surfing for this blog post, I’d never heard of any of them. Certainly it’s a model worth copying, as it offers up a treasure trove of insights into the journey through life and the human condition. And talk about “reality television”!
What I'm referring to is the 7-Up series of documentaries that began in 1964 in England, a product of Granada Television’s World in Action series (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Series). Seeking to explore the truth of the maxim: "Show me a child at seven and I will show you the Man", Michael Apted, then a twenty-two year old researcher, selected a group of seven year olds, from the privileged and the underprivileged classes. Apted has noted his regret that he chose no strictly "middle class" children. Also, there are fewer females than males, and except for one bi-racial boy, no minorities were represented. He says that at the time he “wanted to make a nasty piece of work about these kids who have it all, and these other kids who have nothing.”
The children were interviewed, asked a range of questions about money, class, race, whether they wanted marriage and children, and where they saw themselves in the future. It was conducted with the view to catching a glimpse of what British society might be in the year 2000. It was originally conceived as a one-off, though apparently the original show included this post credits narration: "If you want to know what happens to these children, watch Granada Television on Tuesday 2nd May in the year 2000.”
What actually happened proved way more interesting than even that thought-provoking tease. Because, when 1970 rolled around, Apted, now in the role of director, tracked down the children – now fourteen – and interviewed them again. By 1977, at the third go-round, the potential and promise of the exercise really began to show itself. Some of the twenty-one year olds were exactly what their seven year old versions had hinted at, but others were startlingly different. I won’t spoil it for you, but seeing the change in Neil, from 7 to 14, then on to 21, can’t but make you wonder what happened in his young life to cause such a transformation.
Apted, who eventually moved to Hollywood, where he directed such fare as “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, “Gorillas in the Mist”, “Thunderheart” and “Nell”, returned every seven years to track down the fourteen children and create another episode in the Up series. From time to time, one or another of them has refused to participate. One of the 14 hasn’t participated since he was twenty-one, though, ironically, he’s become a documentary film-maker himself.
The series has continued right up to the present, the latest episode, broadcast in 2012, catching up with the “kids” at age 56. I can’t recall for certain whether I was introduced to the series when the participants were 21 or 28, but being just two years their senior, I feel as though I’ve been taking my life journey right alongside them. One can’t help but contrast and compare, not only them against one another, but also against one’s self. But I imagine that this is the case whatever a viewer’s age.
Despite Apted’s original, incendiary intention, the series did not mature as a political piece. While there’s certainly lots of room for partisan or sociological analysis, it stands as a much more personal exploration of life’s challenges and rewards, its small joys and the abundance of sacrifices it demands of us. Watching the show, you develop affection for some, perhaps judgement of others. You empathize, mourn, smile along with. You understand.
I’ve missed episodes through the years, but have always caught up when I had the chance. And now, the entire series – except for the very last episode – is available on Netflix! A great feature of the presentation is that each episode contains clips from all of the previous episodes. This is an invaluable aide when several years separate viewings. When binge-watching the entire series on Netflix, they can become pretty repetitive. But even with that small drawback, I can’t recommend this series strongly enough. Though its diversity is limited in being set within the mono-culture of a single, European country, there is a deep universality to this series. It will give you much to think about: How much are we all conditioned to live the lives we lead? To what extent are we free to remake ourselves, and to what extent are we subject to the whims of circumstance? To the extent that we have choices, what have we made of them? How might we have done better, or worse? How have we touched the lives of others, and how have our lives been touched by them? And, the one that is ever present, for us and for the fourteen kids of 1964, on and off the screen, what lies ahead?