The 7 Up project started in 1963 as a Granada Films documentary about seven year old British children. Director Michael Apted, himself only in his early twenties, set out to explore the British class system by interviewing youngsters from different economic backgrounds. The film's hook was the old Jesuit saying, "Show me the child until seven, and I will show you the man." Remarkably, Apted has gone back every seven years and updated his interviews with the dozen or so children he started with. 49 Up is the latest installment.
If you only watch 49 Up, you'll get enough back story to know who these people are, but the most satisfying approach is to go through the documentaries in the order they were shot. We are voyeurs in the lives of: Andrew, John and Suzie, upper-class kids who knew early on who they were and what they would do; Simon and Paul, abandoned by their mothers and raised in an orphanage; Jackie, Sue and Lynne, working class girls from London's East End; Nick and Neil, middle class kids with an intellectual bent; Tony, a lively, lovable Cockney; and Bruce, who moves up and down the class ladder. The films prove that you can see the man or woman who will emerge in the child of seven. Their personalities are set; all that's unknown are the circumstances under which their lives will play out.
These are ordinary people; the genius of the series is that they become particular enough to us over the course of the films to feel special. We care about them, and what happens to them. At 49, the group seems much happier than they were in the previous two films. Most of them have passed through the trauma of losing their parents, and they've made peace with career successes and setbacks. In general, they now accept who they are; they're not fighting it or struggling to figure it out.
Class plays less of a role in these lives than the filmmakers initially thought it would. Partly that's an accident of timing. 1963, when these children were seven, turned out to be a watershed year in Britain: the old wartime mentality was ending, the Beatles were beginning, and there was a sense of new possibilities in the air. Between the sense of new opportunity and the economic entitlements of the various Labour governments, even the most disadvantaged of these children managed to carve out a reasonable lifestyle. Temperament, more than economics, determined their fates.
Apted has a gift for balancing objectivity about these people (he asks some tough questions) and compassion for them. It they didn't trust him, the series would have ended a long time ago. He doesn't ask a lot of topical or political questions, so the temporal and trivial are stripped away. What's left are moving images of people born in the middle of the twentieth century. Watching them, we learn how they've faced the big issues of being human: dealing with their parents and upbringing; puberty; being open to the possibility of love; mating and breeding; finding their place in the world; the death of near and dear ones. Of course, watching them is like watching ourselves. Learning about them is learning about ourselves. I'm rooting for all of them, and looking forward to seeing how they're faring at fifty six.