They’re back again, most of them: those fascinating English kids first introduced to us in the 1964 Granada Television documentary 7 Up and brought back to our attention at seven-year intervals ever since, in what is probably the best-known, most influential longitudinal study of human sociology ever captured onscreen. Currently playing at Upstate Films, 63 Up finds Michael Apted – director of the series since its second installment, 7 Plus Seven (1970) – checking back in with all of the original 14 subjects who still want to be involved with the project. There are a few surprises, but for the most part, these are the same no-longer-young Britons we’ve come to know and love over the decades.
Conceived by a Canadian director named Paul Almond, with Apted at first an assistant who screened 7-year-olds to participate, 7 Up and its sequels were originally intended to demonstrate how the rigid British caste system predetermines the life paths and future successes of children from differing socioeconomic backgrounds. The Jesuit proverb, “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man,” was the precept invoked at the start. And in the cases of the four kids from more affluent families, being tracked to attend prestigious institutions of secondary education certainly took them far on the road to good jobs (mostly in law) and material success. But even the most annoyingly privileged of the 7-year-olds, John, turns out to have a more convoluted and challenging life story than we would have expected – and of the adult participants asked for their opinion of Brexit in 63 Up, he’s the one who condemns it most sharply.
What the Up series has unfolded, decade after decade, is a montage of lives in which individual choices, variables of health and dumb luck, as much as inherited wealth, have shaped their outcomes in meaningful ways. The kids who seemed at first most doomed to end up in prison (Tony) or on the dole forever (Paul and Symon) turned out reasonably well, with steady work and supportive families. Two who got off to bright starts were sidelined by disabilities: Jackie by rheumatoid arthritis and Neil by clinical depression – although the latter is no longer the homeless man he was in his 20s, but a sometime elected district councillor and current church elder. One of our erstwhile children now faces throat cancer; another has died since 56 Up. I’ll let you find out which on your own.
One interesting factor that has become clearer over time is that sex, as much as social class if not more, has played a major role in determining the life arcs of these people. To a man, the boys who succeeded against the odds credit their (often second) wives for keeping them focused, confident and on an even keel. The women were more likely to marry too young, have those marriages fail and then soldier on as single mothers. Apted himself has expressed regret that he didn’t include more than four girls in the original sample. And by young womanhood, those girls were pushing back against his tendency to ask them questions about their boyfriends instead of their career plans. Feisty Jackie in particular continues to hold the director accountable for his past patronizing tone toward the women.
Looking ahead toward the future and the fortunes of their own children, the study subjects frequently note that the British system, while more tolerant of diversity, has become tougher in recent decades, particularly with regard to government-funded social support systems such as the National Health Service and council housing being cut back or eliminated altogether. One predicts that the generation of kids being raised today will be the first in a century or more to have a worse standard of living than their parents. He’s hardly the first to make this observation, but as part of a long-running group sociology experiment, his words bear considerable weight.
Will there be a 70 Up? And if so, how many of these adorable/infuriating former kids will be still around, still lucid, still articulate? Apted himself is now 78. So, 63 Up may well turn out to be the final installment in this groundbreaking documentary series. Even if you’re new to it, it’s well-worth an investment of two-and-a-half hours of your time to experience these bittersweet glimpses into 14 ordinary, transcendent human lives.