They know we are watching them. From the anonymity of cinemas and our lounge rooms, they know we come to perve on them every seven years. They will never know us. But we certainly know them. They are part of our lives and we have grown up with them.
Originally devised in 1964 to highlight Britain’s sharpened class system, the 7-year-olds were chosen from across the class divides. At seven, the upper-class boys could tell you the plans laid down for their lives, what schools they would attend, what universities would accept them (invariably Oxbridge) and what careers they would move into – politicians and lawyers mostly.
The working-class boys thought jockey, taxi driver, builder, astronaut. The girls from both classes talked of the timings for marriage and children…and possible careers. But by the time they were 21, the women, and in particular the East Enders, had become assertive and combative.
In 63 UP, East Ender Jackie gives Michael Apted a good talking to:
“When we were younger, I kept asking myself why is he asking us questions about marriage and men. Why is he not asking me questions about how the country is…you treated us women totally different and I didn’t like it. I appreciate when we started at seven, most women were in the kitchen or bringing up children. There weren’t many career women. But when we hit 21, I really thought you’d have a better idea of how the world works…but you still asked us mundane domestic questions…by 49, I thought you know what, no more, I’m not having this anymore and that’s why I got very vocal with you…I just thought you didn’t have any idea of the changing role of women in the UK.”
Apted was certainly guilty of this, but, for most of the time, the empathy he has with his subjects has not been given nearly enough credit. He has made mistakes, but those who chose to stay involved in the UP series seem to like him a lot. They have no problem opening up to him the older they get. And by 63 UP, they seem to have all reviewed the footage from their past lives and come fully equipped into these latest interviews knowing exactly what they want to say.
In retrospect - and this series is all about retrospectivity - Michael Apted has been guilty of occasional heavy handedness. Neil has suffered Apted’s continual probing into the state of his mental health. Now successfully running a career in public life, he is also reminded on screen by Apted of the director’s expectation he might have suicided decades ago (wrong). Tony, the immensely likeable East End taxi driver, has endured Apted thinking he was headed for time in the nick (also wrong).
Apted’s cohort are now all looking at the fag-end of their lives. Mortality and serious illness add an even greater poignancy to their stories.
Overwhelmingly, at the age of 63, the wealth, privilege and material success deemed so significant many decades ago is clearly not as important, in their seventh decade, as their sense of personal happiness. What songwriters Joe Hayes and Jack Rhodes called A Satisfied Mind.
And it’s high-time Apted got rid of that Ignatius Loyola quote: “Give me the child until seven and I will show you the man”. Sure, facial recognition makes them all say “it looks like me when I was younger” and all of us in the audience, hiding in anonymity, would agree about that because it’s also true of ourselves.
But, really, these are grown, mature and wise people whatever class they come from. Their ideas, memories, experiences and personalities are nothing like the seven-year-olds they once were. Mannerisms and appearances might be the same, but that’s about it.
Time for the questions to grow up as well.