Watching the “Up” Series (#2, 7 Plus Seven)

This weekend I watched the second film in the “Up” series, 7 Plus Seven.  Last week I watched (and wrote this blog post about) the first film, Seven Up.  Six more films to go on my way to 56 Up, the most recent film in the series, released less than two weeks ago on DVD in the U.S.

Actually, even though the DVD case lists the first film as Seven Up, I think the first film’s title originally ended with an exclamation mark: Seven Up!  I’m also guessing that title came from a game we used to play in elementary school called “Seven Up!”  I remember absolutely nothing about that game except that I think it involved us putting our heads down on our desks while (seven?) kids walked around and each tapped someone on the shoulder or head.  The object was for us to guess who tapped us.  At some point (when the tapping had been completed?) someone said “seven up!” loudly, which I think was the signal to lift our heads up and begin the guessing process.  I also vaguely recall that you could cheat by looking at people’s shoes 🙂  Hmmm, now I wonder if that was the point of this game: to help the teacher identify “cheaters.”

Anyway, while the first film in the “Up” series introduces us to several seven-year-old children, the second film, 7 Plus Seven, reconnects us with those same children at age 14.  In a collection of interviews with the narrator/director, Michael Apted, the now-teenagers talk about school, their futures, and their feelings about money, social issues, etc.  It’s interesting to see how the children have grown and changed.  And it’s also interesting to get a feel for what was happening in England politically and socially at the time 7 Plus Seven was filmed.

There’s a fair amount of talk about strikes, for example.  Should people be allowed to strike, what should be done about strikes, etc.  I did a little background reading and found that toward the end of the 1960s and on through the 1970s, Britain’s economy was in bad shape.  The Labour Party had control of Parliament under Harold Wilson 1964–1970, a period perfectly bookended by the first and second “Up” films, coincidentally.  In 1967 the British government was forced to devalue the pound.  Trade unions began to strike.  Eventually a strike by coal miners caused the government to institute a “three-day week” (January–March 1974), which limited commercial users of electricity to three days of consumption per week.  According to Wikipedia, by 1975 a million people were unemployed, and by 1978 that number had risen to 1.5 million.

The three affluent Kensington schoolboys are now students at the very same prep schools they had predicted attending when they were seven years old.  In their interview (all three of them conducted together, just as when they were seven), the 14-year-old boys talk about the strikes in political/philosophical terms, at a detached remove almost as if they were analyzing the subject in a classroom discussion.

John, who seems quite well informed and plans a career in politics (he describes himself as “ambitious” for “power” in response to Apted’s questioning), declares that strikes should be illegal.  Charles then remarks that if that were the case, workers would be deprived of their democratic right to strike.  John comes back with an analogy that seems unassailable on its surface, saying that when you put people in prison you’re also depriving them of their rights, his point being that it is sometimes legitimate for people to be deprived of their rights in a democracy.  Charles doesn’t respond.

As a teacher, I didn’t like what I saw happening in this exchange.  Charles voiced a thoughtful opinion—different and somehow more complex than anything any of the film’s other teens had put forth on the topic.  No one else connects the strikes with “democracy” and “rights.”  The other 14-year-olds all talk about the strikes in terms of “greed” and “money,” “rich” and “poor.”  What I didn’t like seeing as a teacher was that, as Charles appeared to be carefully walking through the articulation of his rather insightful idea, suddenly what had appeared to be a low-stakes forum for expressing opinions instead turned out to be a debate that he was not expecting.  Although John’s manner is polite, his tone is condescending, and everything about his statement seems aimed at shutting Charles down.  I admired John’s quick, resourceful rebuttal, but the teacher in me was itching to help Charles out all the same by challenging John to support his assertion that workers on strike were the same as convicted criminals.  Just so Charles could have a little breathing space to collect his thoughts and prepare a comeback 🙂

Meanwhile, the three girls from the East End also touch on strikes in their interviews.  When the subject arises, Lynn volunteers tersely that her mom went out on strike.  She doesn’t elaborate, and the other girls don’t pursue the topic.  Instead they voice supportive murmurs as a way to acknowledge and confirm their acceptance of what Lynn has said.

Lynn was the girl who at age seven declared that she wanted to work at Woolworth’s when she grew up.  Now, at age 14, she goes to a grammar school, and she seems somewhat defensive to me throughout the 7 Plus Seven interview.  Seated between Jackie and Sue, she keeps legs crossed, her hands wrapped around her knees, and her eyes cast downward most of the time.  Her expression is wary, as though she feels she’s being judged and anticipates an attack.  From whom, I had to wonder?  Jackie and Sue, her former schoolmates, seem to be going out of their way not to offend.

It was all this defensive body language (and conciliatory body language from Jackie and Sue in response) that led me to conclude that Lynn felt self-conscious about the inferiority of her “grammar school” compared with the “comprehensive school” her friends chose to attend.

I was wrong.  I totally do not understand the British education system.  “Public” schools are actually private, for example—very expensive, very exclusive.  To me “grammar” school sounds like it would be equivalent to what we call “elementary” or “grade” school in the U.S.  In fact, I’m sure I’ve heard people in this country refer to schools with kindergarten through fifth or sixth grades as “grammar” schools.  “Comprehensive” school means nothing to me.  I’ve also heard the term “forms” in connection with British education.  I know that forms have something to do with what grade a student is in, but they also seem to be connected with whether or not the student will be taking the “A-level” exam.  I don’t know what that is, either, except it has something to do with students going on to college (or going on to “university,” as they say in England).  Perhaps something akin to the ACT and SAT tests in the United States?

So, without knowing what “grammar” school was, I thought Lynn’s grammar school must be some sort of vocational training.  That’s what it looks like to me.  Footage of Lynn in school shows her in a large, industrial-kitchen sort of space.  She and her classmates are watching their teacher, who stands at a stove stirring a pot and emphasizing that a wooden spoon should be used to minimize noise.  As Jackie and Sue talk in the interview about how nice the new comprehensive school is and how girls do metal and wood work and boys do “cook work” classes, Lynn says (somewhat defensively, I thought again), that she doubts many girls at the grammar school would be interested in a woodworking class.  Lynn’s whole manner suggests sour grapes to me, like she believes the comprehensive school to be better than her grammar school and is trying to diminish its attractiveness by dismissing the desirability of woodworking.

But I just looked up grammar and comprehensive schools, and apparently England’s grammar schools are more selective and place greater emphasis on academics than the comprehensive schools.  So why do we see Lynn watching a cooking demonstration at her school?  I’m still confused.

Interestingly, also, despite the allusion to equal opportunity for girls hinted at in the reference to woodworking classes at school, the interviewer (Apted) says to the three girls that “there is a danger” they’ll get married, have children, “and then be stuck at home.”  The implication being that their futures will involve either career or children . . . but not both.  And apparently that marriage and children constitute a prison.  The boys are not asked to consider their futures in such either/or terms.

Over to Neil and Peter, the two boys from Liverpool.  Peter doesn’t make a strong impression on me at age 14.  He seems happy, secure, ordinary.  Although he beats Neil at chess, he exults only a teeny bit (“Watch this,” he says, moving his chess piece into position.  “Checkmate!”) and refrains from gloating.  Which is nice, because Neil looks crestfallen and a bit stunned by his sudden loss.

Neil was the one I remembered from 49 Up as having struggled with mental illness and homelessness as an adult.  As a seven-year-old he was cheerful, bright-eyed, and irrepressible.  Now as a 14-year-old Neil seems more reserved, and maybe a little weary and beaten down.  There is increased competition at school now that he is older, and he has to study all the time to keep up with the leaders.  “I never have the time to relax at all,” he says.  Ominous foreshadowing?

Tony, the aspiring jockey from London’s East End, is already working with horses at Epsom.  What if being a jockey doesn’t work out, the interviewer wants to know.  His dad will be disappointed, says Tony.  If he can’t be a jockey, he says, he’d like to be a taxi driver.  (Which, in fact, was the very thing he turned out to do for a living in 49 Up.)

Bruce was the son of a missionary [UPDATE: I just read an article saying that his father was a soldier; the rest of this paragraph may help explain how I formed the impression that he was a missionary] stationed in Rhodesia.  In Seven Up Bruce was living in a rather scary boarding school, with a little martinet of an older student leading calisthenics-slash-military drills and kicking boys who got out of line (literally “out of line,” because the boys were supposed to be standing in a line, so maybe that’s where we get the expression :)).  Bruce retains his gentle, dreamy manner in 7 Plus Seven.  There’s an expression I’ve picked up from watching British television imports (BBC, ITV shows, etc.) to describe a person who emanates a certain quality.  Often characters will say of someone that he is “incandescent” with rage, intelligence, whatever.  Well, Bruce is incandescent with goodness.  So kind, so sweet, so accepting of everyone.  He never has an unpleasant word to say about anything, including the boarding school he lived in during Seven Up.  Anything that isn’t positive, he at least phrases in the most diplomatic manner possible.

Suzy, who at age seven had never met a person of color and didn’t think she’d ever care to, thank you very much, now lives on her father’s 4,000 acre estate in Scotland.  Her interview takes place outdoors, on a lawn bordered with flowers, and I have to admit I lost track of most of her responses because I was so preoccupied with the life-and-death drama unfolding behind her as she talked.  First a rabbit hops out from a flower bed behind her.  It’s in the background, just a blurry object moving about beyond Suzy’s head.  Then her dog, Max, rushes into the picture to pounce on it, and the camera racks focus to frame Max as he brings the rabbit’s dead body over close to where Suzy sits.  Suzy informs Max he is disgusting, but she remains unruffled by what has just happened, telling the interviewer that the rabbit is not as bad as when her dog catches birds and she can’t get to them to kill them (to end their suffering).  She seems to have a toughness about death that goes with rural life, saying that most people “aren’t up to” the job of killing wounded animals.

The two boys who lived in the charity-run children’s home in Seven Up no longer do.

Paul (the boy who plaintively asked “What does university mean?” in Seven Up) is now living in Australia.  He doesn’t get as much screen time as most of the other kids in 7 Plus Seven.  We see him riding his bike home from school to his nice house in a suburban-looking neighborhood.  Then we see him riding a pony in a field.  Through a voiceover, he talks about how he wanted to be a physical education teacher until he found out you had to go to college to do that.  Now he doesn’t know what he wants to do.  Seems like a normal, active teenager to me.

Symon, the only non-white child in the series, is interviewed at length in what appears to be his kitchen.  He is living with his mom now, and I can’t decide whether he is on the verge of tears during his interview or not.  He is very thoughtful, soft-spoken, articulate.  Several times he talks about things that sound as if they might trouble him, and he looks like he’s going to cry, but then he smiles and I second-guess my impressions.  Symon says he’s happy to be with his mom, but in some ways he was happier at the children’s home, where everyone was his friend and he had everything he needed.

In response to the interviewer’s apparent question about travel, Symon recounts several local places he was taken on outings when he lived at the children’s home.  Other 7 Plus Seven participants answered the same question with one-word identifications of countries and tourist locales (Spain, France, Majorca, Casablanca).  Not only was I struck by the contrast between these exotic destinations and Symon’s field-trip type outings, but I also found it interesting that Symon would remember and list all the places he visited by their specific names.

At another point, the interviewer has apparently asked everyone whether they get an allowance, how much, and what they spend it on.  Symon says his mom gives him a pound a week but has usually taken 10 bob back by the middle of the week.  “I save the other 10 bob as much as possible,” he says.

I think that’s everyone but Nicholas, the boy from a small Yorkshire village.  Nick has won a scholarship to a Yorkshire boarding school, and he says he’s happy with the arrangement.  He wouldn’t want to be at school all the time, nor would he want to be on the farm all the time.  At one point the interviewer asks Nick if he wants to take up farming.  “No,” says Nick flatly.  “I’m not interested in it.  I mean . . . I’m not.  And I said I was interested in physics and chemistry, well I’m not going to do that here.”

Asked if his father wanted to do farming, Nick says, “I don’t think he really wanted to but he got stuck with it.”  He suspects that his grandfather wanted his father to be a farmer, but Nick doesn’t think his own father wants that for him.  If his youngest brother, “the deaf one,” as Nick refers to him, can’t do anything else, maybe he could run a farm.

Nick is interviewed outside, sitting on the grass at his family’s farm.  He spends most of his interview with his crossed arms resting on his knees, which he has drawn up against his chest.  His head is buried within the circle of his arms, behind his knees.  Seldom does he raise his head to make even minimal eye contact with the interviewer.  He answers the interviewer’s questions but seems (to me) miserable, self-conscious, defensive, and grudging in his replies.

Painful, painful to watch.  I feel like a voyeur prying into these young people’s lives.  And writing about my impressions of their interviews here in my blog is a completely different experience than I thought it would be.  The “Up” children are real people, not movie characters.  Talking about someone who actually lives and breathes in the world is not the same as analyzing a purely fictitious character.

Interestingly, I didn’t feel so queasy when I watched 49 Up several years ago.  Maybe it’s because in 49 Up, everyone was an adult.  Even watching Seven Up last week I didn’t feel so uneasy.  At age seven, all the children seemed open and unaware of themselves, and it didn’t occur to me that we shouldn’t be asking them such personal questions.  In fact, last week, questions like “Do you have a girlfriend?” didn’t seem very personal at all.  Now, though, in 7 Plus Seven, the participants are all quite self-aware, very conscious of themselves and of how others may view them.

And even at 14, they are still children.  I am hyper-conscious of how young they are.  Are these documentary films exploiting them?  And if so, does my own decision to view and comment on the films make me complicit?

Despite my discomfort, I do intend to keep on with my plan to view all of the “Up” series films this summer, one every weekend for the next several weeks.  I’ll write about my reactions as planned, too.  But I have no idea what to expect from the experience.

I was originally inspired to watch the entire series in order by a quote I ran across some time ago, taken from a 1998 review of the “Up” documentary films written by the late Roger Ebert:

They . . . strike me as an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium.  No other art form can capture so well the look in an eye, the feeling in an expression, the thoughts that go unspoken between the words.  To look at these films, as I have every seven years, is to meditate on the astonishing fact that man is the only animal that knows it lives in time.

I guess what I expected from watching the “Up” films was that I’d gain insights into how people age and discover who they are growing up.  Sort of an academic exercise in the field of psychology or sociology, a longitudinal study following a group of subjects over a period of decades.  But now that I’m into the “project,” I don’t feel like a researcher after all.

I feel . . . more like a protective parent.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Life, Movies and film, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Watching the “Up” Series (#2, 7 Plus Seven)

  1. Please DO continue. This is really interesting…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.