Over the weekend I watched the third film in the “Up” series. All the original seven-year-olds are back and are now age 21.
I started writing this post on Saturday; today is Wednesday. In a couple of days I’ll be watching 28 Up, so I need to get this post up even though I think it’s too rambling and unstructured. This morning I realized that there are two reasons why this post has been so difficult to write. One is that 21 Up itself is kind of rambling and unfocused. The second is that the content of the 21 Up film is pretty complex. After four days of trying to write a nice, coherent essay on my viewing experience, I’ve concluded that it just ain’t gonna happen. So my apologies in advance for rambling. I hope my discussion of the film will be worth the trouble of reading 🙂
This time director Michael Apted brought the children (now young adults) together for a screening of the first two films. In a pre-video era, it was almost certainly the first time the young adult subjects had watched their interviews since the original programs had aired on television seven and 14 years previously. At the beginning of 21 Up we see the now-adult children sitting in theater seats, laughing at some cute or ludicrous thing they’d said in the earlier productions. At the reception that follows the screening, they interact with each other for the first time since they were initially brought together for a zoo outing and a party while shooting the first film, 1964’s Seven Up.
It’s interesting to see how much the children have changed . . . and the wide variation in clothing and personal style, both at the reception and throughout the film’s individual interviews. In the first two films the children wore either school uniforms or nondescript, everyday outfits. In 21 Up, John (one of the three prep-school boys) wears an ultra-fashionable-yet-classic Savile Row type of bespoke three-piece suit. In contrast, one of his former schoolmates, Charles, is in jeans and a sweatshirt. John also has a more traditional haircut, while Charles wears his hair much longer, in a style reminiscent of David Cassidy in the Partridge Family era. Symon, one of the charity-run children’s home boys, wears a crocheted beret hat in one interview and wide-legged flared pants, white shoes, a rather loud plaid sportcoat, and a giant “fro” hairstyle on a visit to the now-empty children’s home. The young women’s clothing doesn’t seem as ridiculously dated, but their hairstyles are clearly mid to late 1970s, especially the bobs with flipped-back “wings,” the Dorothy Hamill wedge, and the Janis Joplin face-obscuring, center-parted long hair.
As I said before, the 21 Up film is more complex than the earlier ones, so I’ll first provide a quick rundown on each person to bring you up to date and then talk about some of my own general reactions to the film.
John, Andrew, and Charles (the three prep-school boys) are now in college. John and Andrew are “reading” law at Oxford and Cambridge, respectively. Theirs is the most predictable pathway. They went to good schools, studied to enter a stable profession, and will undoubtedly step into remunerative jobs upon graduation.
Charles, the third prep-school boy, didn’t get into Oxford and is now “reading” history at another university. When asked by director/interviewer Michael Apted how he feels about not being able to “make Oxford,” Charles says he doesn’t mind at all. “In fact, I’m pleased I didn’t,” he says, because he avoided the Marlborough–Oxbridge conveyor belt. He says that boys from wealthy families all attend the same prep schools, then go to Oxford or Cambridge, continuing to mix with the same people they’ve mixed with all their lives, and “get shoved out at the end,” presumably like upper-class widgets.
Apparently 21 Up will be Charles’s last appearance in the “Up” series, according to Wikipedia. I’m going to miss Charles. He is a refreshing presence, an unprepossessing yet confident, independent thinker. I’m not sure why he doesn’t come back to do any of the future films. At one point when the three boys are commenting on the rather pretentious pronouncements of their seven-year-old selves (describing the financial newspapers they read and the shares they own), Charles says with a laugh that if people listen to and give any credence to what they say in these films, then “Good luck to them.”
The three East End girls (Jackie, Lynn, and Sue) did not go to college and are all working now. Two are married, Jackie and Lynn. Jackie works for an Australian bank doing some sort of clerical work, and she and her husband live “on a new estate,” which apparently means in a new subdivision, in Essex. Lynn still lives in London’s East End, where she works as a school librarian, taking books to schools in a van marked “School Mobile Library,” the equivalent of a bookmobile in the United States. Sue is single and works for a travel company. She says (admits?) that she does type for her job, but she also makes bookings for company groups.
I bring up the typing because there was some controversy in the 1970s and into the early 1980s regarding whether women should agree to type on the job, or even learn to type, period. Typing was viewed as a dangerous skill, because once employers knew you could type, even if you had a college degree, they might pressure you to type. And typing, even occasionally, was a potential one-way ticket to the “pink ghetto” of a secretarial job. Not until personal computers became ubiquitous and “keyboarding” a necessary skill for using the new technology could a woman feel confident that her career prospects would remain undamaged if she were a good typist.
Back to 21 Up. Neil and Peter were the two boys from a Liverpool suburb. Peter is now in his last year of college in London, where he is living a typical student life with two or three fellow students in a rented flat. Neil, on the other hand, is basically homeless. He applied to Oxford University but was not accepted. Then he dropped out of college after one term at Aberdeen University. Now he is squatting in an abandoned flat, which he found through some sort of agency that specializes in finding such places for people. Neil is filmed doing manual labor on a construction site, stacking some sort of frames, and it looks to me like he picks up day-laborer jobs rather than working a steady, full-time position.
Symon and Paul were the two boys who lived at the charity-run children’s home. Paul moved to Australia with his father and stepmother prior to 7 Plus Seven, and he still lives there. Now he is working as a bricklayer, and he’s apparently doing well, having been made a junior partner by his boss. Paul really enjoys his work, especially the fact that when he builds a house, he can point to it and say, “‘I did that.’ It’s substance.” Symon is living with his mother, whom he “gets on well with.” He says they are more like friends than mother and son. His mother is “nervous” and prone to depression; Symon feels “protective” of her. He did not go to college and has a job working at a meat freezer, where he drives a forklift in what appears to be a normal warehouse except everyone is wearing winter coats. Symon says the thing he likes best about his job is the people, the “team spirit,” the way everyone pulls together to get the work done.
Tony, the aspiring jockey from London’s East End, did actually ride in a few races. Three, to be exact. In the end, he says, he just wasn’t good enough to make it as a jockey. Now he is studying to become a licensed taxi driver, which I gather is a really big deal, very difficult to do because of the incredibly helter-skelter, weblike layout of London’s streets. We see Tony riding his motorbike around London with a clipboard mounted on the handlebars in front of him. Whenever he is stopped for traffic, he pulls out a reference book to study, as well. He says he does two runs a day prepping on the “knowledge” for his future career as a taxi driver; then he goes to his “job” at a greyhound racing track, where he appears to be some sort of bookie or runner, placing bets for people.
Suzy was the wealthy girl who lived on her father’s 4,000 acre estate in Scotland in 7 Plus Seven. (Her dog ambushed a rabbit during the interview for that film.) Suzy dropped out of (or, as the narrator puts it, “left”) school at age 16 and moved to Paris because she was “not interested” in school and “wanted to get away.” She attended secretarial college and took a job. She has traveled a bit, and her trips appear to be of long duration. She spent two months in Hawaii with her father, where she was bored and had no one her age to socialize with. And when she goes to Australia with her cousin for a wedding in the summer, she plans to stay for two months to see “what it’s like there,” and learn how people live on the other side of the world.
Bruce, the soldier’s son who lived in a scary boarding school at age seven, is now at University College, Oxford, “reading” mathematics. Finally I understand how I formed the impression that Bruce was a missionary’s son in Seven Up. A clip from that first film included in 21 Up shows little Bruce saying, quite solemnly and sincerely, that someday he would like to “go into Africa and try and teach people who are not civilized to be, more or less, good.” Bruce took nine months off before going to Oxford, two months of which he spent working at a handicapped (“spastic”) school. He says he doesn’t like to talk about it because he never wants to “feel too proud.” Bruce has an ironic sense of humor which is easy to miss because his delivery is so low-key and straight-faced. For example, he describes being the only socialist in his village and standing up in pubs to defend the socialist point of view; but that’s hard work, he says, so he’s going to give that up. I don’t remember the exact details of what the interviewer says in response, but he (director Apted) seems not to get the joke.
And finally there is Nicholas, the boy from the farm in Yorkshire. Nick expressed a desire to be a scientist in both previous films, and now he is at Merton College, Oxford, studying physics. In response to the interviewer’s questions about how his farm background has influenced his life, Nick says that the farm in Yorkshire is a “fixed reference point,” with an “earthy life-and-death cycle.” You learn to accept things as they come and become “resigned” to things you can’t change.
A few thoughts on the film overall. First, it’s interesting to consider the juxtaposition of clips from the first two movies with what the young adults have to say now. I had forgotten this hilarious little gem from the first movie, in which Paul (one of the children’s home boys) explains why he won’t be getting married.
Today Paul (bricklayer in Australia) expresses a desire to be happily married. He has a girlfriend, with whom we see him frolicking on a beach, but he confides to us that he has not been able to tell her yet that he loves her. I assume she found out along with everyone else when the film was released.
Second, it’s interesting to get a sense of social, economic, and political issues of the day from the interviews in this film. Some of these issues are still relevant, while others seem very much tied to the times. The film was released in 1978, so it was probably largely filmed in 1976 or 1977.
Several of these 21-year-olds talk about their parents’ divorces, a surprising number of which occurred when they were 14 years old. Only Suzy expresses overt cynicism about marriage, though, saying that “it kills whatever love is.” In contrast, Charles says that despite his parents’ divorce, he has a “positive attitude” toward marriage. If you want to have children, he says, that’s a real reason for getting married. And part of getting married is agreeing to actually make the thing work for 18 years. He thinks that often people who get divorced don’t make as much effort as they should have; a statement he immediately acknowledges is “crazy for me to say because I haven’t been in the position.”
Cigarette smoking was also a more common and unselfconscious practice than it is today. Suzy smokes all way through her interview. Her somewhat theatrical exhalations and ash flickings and poised cigarette strike me as part and parcel of her bored, world-weary ennui. Sue, the unmarried East End girl (who sometimes types), smokes in her interview with Jackie at Jackie’s house, although more discreetly, as all I really see is smoke rising from where her hands rest in her lap, behind crossed legs. Jackie also has a cigarette going during the interview with all three East End girls. And I noticed that Symon carries a cigarette casually between his fingers when he and Paul do the walk-though visit of their old children’s home.
The idea of women’s roles and place in society also is brought up by director/interviewer Apted (who suggested to the East End girls in 7 Plus Seven that there was a “danger” they’d marry and be “stuck at home”). In an interview with Jackie and Sue in Jackie’s home (“on” the new “estate” in Essex), Apted asks them if they are “career girls.” Sue realizes that she meets the criteria by virtue of being an unmarried “girl” with a job, but she seems a little uneasy with that label and denies it is appropriate for her. She might marry at some point, she says, and she’s not that ambitious in her job. Both she and Jackie identify their friend Lynn as being more suited to the term, as Lynn has always been “more serious.”
Other themes I noticed seemed to be more timeless and universal. There is something very unsettled, very unformed as yet about these 21-year-olds. They are at the end of their childhoods but not fully launched into adulthood. There is much talk about what they want out of life, but their musings are vague.
They express a desire to be “happy,” but most of them seem uncertain about what that means. Paul (Australian bricklayer) defines happiness as “basically, the will to live.” Others are quite specific. Tony (jockey/taxi driver) wants a baby son. Charles jokingly (but probably truthfully) says he wants a “nuclear family and semi-detached in Brentford,” a town in West London.
Some of those nearing the end of their university studies don’t know what they’ll be doing upon graduation. Peter hopes for a job that makes him happy but doesn’t expect it. “No, son,” he imagines his parents saying, “it doesn’t work that way.” Several people express a belief that they have great potential inside of them, that they know they are capable of doing great things. But . . . they aren’t sure they have the motivation to work toward it.
This is interesting to me. It’s almost as if they are choosing to underachieve. But on the other hand, maybe they are actually engaging in some sort of cost–benefit analysis, analyzing the return on investment, as it were. Is it worth the work? Would they enjoy the reward after working so hard to achieve it?
Or maybe their procrastination is a sign of something else. Bruce talks about how his boarding school experience left him far too acquiescent to authority. It was a shock to him when he left that (very scary, in my opinion) military school and saw other people actually questioning authority. In reaction somehow to his experience with authority at boarding school, he has developed a lack of responsibility and follow-through, he says. Although elected to secretary/treasurer positions in several clubs, he confesses that he never performed any of his required duties.
At another point in his interview, Bruce mentions that he would like to be a mapmaker. He says he’d enjoy the outdoor life and travel. His mathematics degree makes him “sort of qualified” for the job, he says, but there are “few” jobs like that. Despite their scarcity, such a position was apparently open recently—but Bruce didn’t even apply. “I’ve probably missed it this time around,” he says. And then he begins to rationalize that perhaps he wouldn’t like being a mapmaker after all.
I can’t figure out what this is, but Bruce’s reluctance to put himself out there by seizing the opportunity to apply for the mapmaking job seems to be somehow related to the earlier problems Bruce describes with the way he unquestioningly obeys authority and fails to follow through on his responsibilities. All I can speculate is that Bruce’s subconscious strategy for surviving boarding school was to refrain from standing out (including literally, as Seven Up shows that older student kicking younger boys who get out of line). Following the rules and keeping a low profile served him well in that situation, but now his behaviors of procrastination and avoidance threaten his future well-being.
The original idea of the “Up” series was to follow children from different socioeconomic backgrounds and to show how their lives were predetermined at birth by what strata of society they were born into. Apparently this isn’t working out quite as envisioned. At the reception that follows the screening of the earlier films at the beginning of 21 Up, Neil and Nick talk (in separate interviews/conversations with Apted) about how the original theory has been disproved by the actual turn of events.
Only one person, John, who is one of the three prep-school boys, fits a stereotype of his social and economic class, which he does almost to the point of caricature. He looks ridiculous walking around the Oxford countryside in his suit during a traditional “hunting of the hare” with a pack of hounds, and he unselfconsciously makes remarks that seem extraordinarily bigoted and ignorant to me, like his assertion that “assembly-line workers at some of these car factories earning a huge wage” could send their sons to private school if they chose to but don’t put it as high on their list of priorities as a “smart car.”
At the same time, I admire John’s integrity. John is a true conservative, in the ideological sense that a political scientist would use. For as many statements he makes regarding the rights and privileges of the upper class, he also makes statements regarding the moral responsibilities associated with those rights and privileges. Apparently there was some controversy in the 1970s about people with education leaving England, sort of a brain drain. John thinks people should have the right to emigrate, but he also feels they have a moral obligation to stay in England and “put back” into society the good they have received.
Similarly, while John doesn’t see anything wrong with wealthier people having more options than other people, he says, “What’s undesirable is if people have had options and haven’t taken advantage of them.” This statement reminds me of the parable of the talents, in which a master who is going away gives “talents” (coins) to each of three servants for safekeeping. Two of the servants put their talents to work (like good capitalists :)) and increase the value of what they were given, so the master rewards them upon his return. The third servant, in contrast, buries his talent to keep it safe, meaning he has nothing to show for himself when the master returns except that one dirt-coated talent, and so he is punished.
One should not “abuse the opportunities and privileges” they’ve had, John continues, but it’s not a bad thing to have those privileges “as long as you behave responsibly.” In this section of his interview, John seems to allude to the concept of noblesse oblige, wherein those who are born into privilege (nobility) have a moral obligation, superseding any legal obligation, to behave “responsibly” in such a way that “there’s a stability and structure in society,” as he puts it.
John tells the interviewer (Apted) that he does “slightly object” to the way the three prep-school boys’ educational path has been portrayed, because viewers may feel that he and his two friends had everything handed to them and that they “sailed through” like it was an “indestructible birthright.” He adds that the earlier films don’t show the “sleepless nights,” “sweat and toil,” “poring over books,” or “beastly jobs” they took on over the holidays “to make ends meet.”
You can see an early indicator of John’s moral integrity (even “chivalry” if you want to call it that) in the clip from the Seven Up zoo outing included in 21 Up. In that clip, a boy I can’t identify (possibly one of the 20 children who didn’t make the final “cut” for the original film? I think “Jeffrey,” who is a classmate of the three East End girls at age seven, the one Jackie and Lynn think would marry Susan) throws something at the polar bear. I thought at first it was a rock, but it’s apparently some sort of food. John sees him do it, and an expression of shock followed by righteous indignation crosses his face. The sign says “No Feeding,” John rushes over to tell him. Ignoring him, the boy throws food again. After a stunned second John grabs the other boy’s arm, saying firmly, “Stop at once!” John could be viewed negatively as a self-important, self-appointed arbiter of other children’s behavior in situations that are none of his business. But it’s also reasonable to consider his actions in a positive light. He clearly has a sense of right and wrong, and he feels compelled to take action when someone crosses the line.
In the case of the other 21-year-olds, for whom the social and economic class indicators haven’t shaped their lives the way the first film originally predicted they would, I get the impression that interviewer/ director Michael Apted occasionally tries to mix things up a little by getting the film’s subjects to gossip about and snipe at each other.
For example, he asks the East End girls how they feel about comparing themselves to Suzy, “who stands at the other end of the social scale; would you say you’ve had the same opportunities she’s had?” He also asks if they “envy” her income. Kind of insulting, so it’s not surprising that the young women react defensively.
“I say I’ve had the opportunities I’ve wanted,” says Jackie, with an edge in her voice.
“I say I’ve had MORE,” says Lynn, interrupting Jackie with an even angrier tone. “I’m not going to say on film what I feel for her (Suzy), but I think she’s been so conditioned” for what she should do or shouldn’t do that, the implication is, she has actually had fewer opportunities.
When Apted asks Tony (former jockey/aspiring taxi driver) if he will “regret” not having an education, Tony says, “Where does that come into it? Education is just a thing to say my son is higher than him, or my son had a better background than him.” He adds, “I mean, I’m as good or even better than most of them people, especially on this program,” then makes makes what I assume to be a disparaging allusion to Nick with a pantomime of pouring liquid from one beaker into another.
The words tumble out so fast, with one idea fragment interrupted by the next, that it’s hard to get a direct quote, but Tony says he has a car, motorbike, and goes to Spain every year. “How does he do it?” he imagines the more educated people asking, as they look at Tony’s financial picture. “Where’s the education? There’s no education in this world. Life is one big rat race, and you’ll got to kill your man next to you to get in front of him.”
As Tony drives around the East End, Apted repeatedly asks him leading/pointed questions that imply he will have a life of crime. “Are there villains in the East End?” he asks Tony. “Do you have much to do with villains? Does it worry you, the possibility of becoming one of them?”
At first Tony answers in his usual easygoing, good-humored way, but that last question brings out a flash of temper: “How can I become a villain? If it’s not born in you, you won’t become one.”
I guess my final impressions of this film and the 21-year-olds are related to Tony’s response to that last question. What I really take away from 21 Up is how much each person is an INDIVIDUAL. Without completely disregarding social class and economic circumstances, I was struck by how differently each person in the film reacted to life events that were quite similar.
For example, how does a person recover from failure? Resilience varied greatly from person to person in this film. Some people showed a remarkable ability to pick themselves up again, while others did not.
Tony is very matter of fact about his failure to make it as a jockey. He had only three rides. “Do you regret not making it?” asks the interviewer. Tony replies, “Oh, I would have given my right arm, at the time, to become a jockey. But no, I wasn’t good enough. It’s as easy as that.” So he has moved on to Plan B, becoming a taxi driver.
Neil, the bright, happy seven-year-old from Liverpool, didn’t get into Oxford. He admits to having been “bitter” about the rejection, which is something he’s trying to “get over.” His body language in the 21 Up interview (conducted in the abandoned building where he is squatting) is edgy, tense, fidgety. The reason he didn’t get accepted, says Neil, was “probably because I didn’t approach the thing in the right way.”
Partly I do feel sorry for Neil. We’ve seen the three prep-school boys who had their educational futures so mapped out, and maybe they (or their families) knew their way around the system in a way that Neil’s parents hadn’t. Peter says that both Neil’s parents are teachers, which may have created a more “academic” atmosphere in the home, which he “did notice” (implying that this academic atmosphere was a negative thing) from time to time.
But Neil seems to blame many of his disappointments on his parents, and eventually the list of grievances grows long enough to appear unreasonable. When asked how his parents influenced him, for example, he says in clipped phrases that they taught him to believe in God, to the extent that he should “always think of other people first before yourself to a ridiculous degree,” i.e., Christianity’s principle of turning the other cheek.
“I don’t think I was really taught any sort of policy of living at all by my parents,” he says. “This is probably their biggest mistake, that I was left to fend for myself in a world that they seemed completely oblivious of.”
Yet, contrast Neil’s bitterness with the way Charles has processed his own experience of being rejected by Oxford. Not only is Charles not bitter, but he says he is actually glad now that he avoided the Marlborough–Oxbridge “conveyor belt.” Maybe this is just the story Charles has told himself in order to rationalize his disappointment, but in the long term it may be a much happier, healthier “life narrative” to craft from the actual facts surrounding the rejection than the narrative Neil has created for himself.
When Neil comments on his younger “self” seen in clips from the previous two films, he can’t believe that he was ever as carefree, unguarded, and happy as he appears in the Seven Up film. But, he says, “there’s the evidence” before our eyes. He wonders what was inside him that made him like that.
Then he articulates something that strikes me as a stunning insight, something to the effect that at age 7 he lived in a world of “sensation.” I need to watch that section of the film again to get a better feel for what he means by that. I think he’s saying that he lived in the moment, unselfconsciously, not worrying about what others thought and how he would be perceived.
Immediately following his comment about living in a world of “sensation” at age 7, Neil says he can see that at 14 he was more subdued and putting more thought into what he was saying. “I think this was something wrong in my upbringing,” says Neil, “that I didn’t have enough obstacles to get over, to toughen myself up against.”
Again, I felt bad for Neil after he said that because, who knows? Maybe his parents kept him inside a bubble and didn’t help him develop a realistic sense of what it took to survive in the world. But on the other hand, if Neil was happy as a 7-year-old because he lived in the moment, in a world of sensation, then facing a multitude of obstacles to toughen up might not have produced the desired result, either.
It’s interesting to compare Neil’s reflections with Charles’s. In addition to being rejected by Oxford, Charles also faced disappointment on the parental front. His parents got divorced when he was about 14 years old. Yet he does not express cynicism toward marriage or any bitterness toward his parents. “You have to assume most parents do the best they can,” he says.
In keeping with the idea that all of the 21 Up subjects are “individuals” more so than representatives of a collective societal-niche perspective, everyone has quite different outlooks/philosophies regarding how life should be lived and what it takes to be happy.
When asked what they want out of life, most of the film’s subjects say they want to be happy, but they seem unsure of what makes them happy or even what happiness is. They don’t know what they want, and without being sure of that, they lack motivation to develop the potential they know they have to do great things.
For that reason I think that John, Andrew, Nicholas, Tony, and Paul seem the most likely to succeed at this point in terms of achieving personal and professional happiness, mostly because they have clear goals that they are working hard to reach. Everyone else seems to be stalled at this point, either underachieving or just marking time, whether by deliberate choice or not.
John and Andrew (studying law at Oxford and Cambridge) may or may not end up being happy. Although they clearly have strong work ethics, they are riding the conveyor belt that Charles so astutely identified. A high-income career in law is the logical, inevitable outcome of their hard work, but unlike Nicholas and Tony, neither John nor Andrew seems to have “dreamed” of a career in law. “Happiness” as a goal doesn’t seem to be part of their plan—at least, not the idea of deriving happiness from their careers.
Nicholas and Tony, on the other hand, are pursuing clear goals, dreams they’ve had since childhood and which, therefore, are strongly integrated with their personal identities. And although Paul’s trade as a bricklayer was not a childhood dream, he truly enjoys the work itself, he’s good at it, he’s had some recognition and success on the job (being made junior partner), and he derives intrinsic satisfaction from creating something of substance that leaves a mark on the world.
Everyone else seems to be searching, and they don’t even seem to know what they’re searching for. Maybe that fact is the primary source of my problem in trying to write a coherent post about this film: the subjects themselves are ambiguous, amorphous, inchoate. I know these aren’t quite the right words. But the people I see in this film are very unfixed, in an unstable, constantly shifting state like water moving between the forms of frozen, liquid, and steam. You can even see this in the way I referred to them in writing this post, sometimes as “the children,” sometimes as “young adults,” sometimes as “the subjects,” and maybe even as “participants.” But never have I referred to them as “men” and “women,” I don’t think.
I had forgotten before watching and thinking about this film what an exciting, frightening, confusing age 21 is. How if feels to be poised in awkward suspension between familiar past and unfathomable future. The subjects of 21 Up are human beings on the “verge” of their lives.
No longer children, but not yet really adults, either.