Several years ago, in one of those serendipitous moments that can occur only in the physical world (i.e., not online), I stumbled across a film in the documentary section of a Blockbuster video store, 49 Up. I realized at once that this movie must be part of the “Seven Up” documentary series I’d vaguely heard of before.
In 1964, twenty seven-year-old children in England were profiled/interviewed in a television series called “World in Action” for Britain’s Granada Television. Taking its cue from the Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the show selected its interview subjects from a variety of socioeconomic circumstances.
“Why do we bring these children together?” asks the narrator rhetorically. “Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.”
The most recent film in the series, 56 Up, was broadcast on British television a year ago. I’ve been waiting impatiently since then to view it in the U.S., and when it was finally released on DVD here last week, I decided to purchase the boxed set of all eight movies. Currently priced at $37.99 on Amazon, the entire set together is an excellent deal.
So this past weekend I watched the first film in the series, 1964’s Seven Up. I wasn’t viewing it through completely new eyes, though, because remember I’d already watched the seventh film, 49 Up, a few years ago after finding it at Blockbuster. Even though I don’t recall many details from 49 Up, my perceptions of the original film this weekend were definitely informed by my previous viewing.
For example, one of the children, Nicholas Hitchon, lived on a farm in rural Yorkshire in 1964. By 49 Up he was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, which is in Madison about a 90-minute drive away from my home in Milwaukee. I remember feeling a little sad for Nick in 49 Up and identifying a bit with some of the choices he had made in life. In his Madison home, Nick had created a “Yorkshire room” filled with things to remind him of the beautiful countryside of his childhood . . . which he’d had to leave behind in order to become a scientist (a desire that is evident even in the very first film, I see now).
All of us have faced difficult choices like this, but the stark contrast between the life one actually lives and other possible lives one could have chosen instead is something I wasn’t fully conscious of until watching the 49 Up interview with Nick. To me it seemed very tragic that Nick is a Yorkshire boy who cannot live in Yorkshire. Being true to his intellectual self required giving up an equally true part of himself.
In Seven Up young Nick seems very self-possessed. I got a particular kick out of one of his responses. When the interviewer asks him (as he did all the children) if he has a girlfriend, Nick seems a little nonplussed at first but quickly recovers, retorting something like, “I don’t answer that sort of question.”
Tony Walker, a London taxi driver in 49 Up, was a scrappy little kid from London’s East End in Seven Up. I recall liking Tony a lot in 49 Up. He and his wife, also a taxi driver, seemed very practical and down to earth. They had a second home in Spain, were very family oriented, and in some ways struck me as being happiest of anyone in the series with their lot in life. By “happiest” I mean that they seemed (to me, at least, viewing everyone’s lives at great distance of both time and space) not merely content with their lives but actually very engaged in living their lives with deliberate joy.
The other person I remembered well from 49 Up is Neil Hughes. All of the “Up” films review each person’s life via clips from the previous films in order to bring the audience up to date and ensure that each film becomes a standalone experience for newcomers. What I recalled from 49 Up was that Neil had had a very rough go of things in life. At one point he was homeless, at another living in public housing in an absolutely gorgeous part of Scotland.
So watching Seven Up this past weekend, it was almost painful to see what a bright, articulate little boy Neil had been in the original movie. “Chipper” is the best word I can think of to describe him. So cheerful, so quick-witted, so full of life! I care about Neil, I realize, and am itching to watch 56 Up to see how he is doing today. But I’ll have to arrive at age 56 by moving through his life at seven-year intervals, because my plan is to watch all eight films in sequence.
I don’t know yet what insights I’ll take away from the series overall, but I anticipate that following several people through their lives, and hearing their own self-reflections every seven years, will prove to be enlightening. I’m astounded and grateful that the subjects of the Up series have consented to this fairly extreme invasion of their privacy in order to maintain the integrity of the films’ collective purpose.
Just one other observation to share from the original Seven Up film right now. At one point the interviewer apparently asked the children about their future educational plans. The trio of boys from a London-area prep school provide detailed responses about the paths they expect their lives will take, identifying by name not only their intended future public schools but also their intended universities (Oxford and Cambridge) and even a specific college within those universities (Trinity).
From these three privileged seven-year-olds, we then cut directly to Paul, one of the two boys living in a charity-run children’s home. His brow furrows in confusion at the interviewer’s question.
“What does ‘university’ mean?” he asks.