Before Reality TV was a genre, there was 7 Up, originally broadcast as a TV special. Is this one of the greatest documentary series ever made?
Duration: 1003 minutes + special features
Angered by Britain’s class system and inspired by the Jesuit saying: "Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man," Tim Hewat, founder-editor of TV documentary series World in Action, selected seven-year-olds from a range of backgrounds: poor urban, including two from an orphanage; suburban; and some privileged children who already expected to go to Cambridge University.
The original aim was a one-off, to show that class privileges set in early. It was someone else who suggested after a while that a follow up would be a good idea. This not only helped to prove the point, but began a fascinating series that started to hook viewers.
Early programmes interview these children, asking for their hopes and expectations, and every seven years we see their progress, as later episodes track those dreams right up to retirement and (in one case) death.
As it has been such a groundbreaking social experiment, many readers will already have come across this series – although maybe not known how long it continued – and they will have come to know and love these memorable characters, such as the chirpy London lad Tony, who dreamt of becoming a jockey, and Liverpudlian Neil, whose intensity comes out in different ways throughout his life’s unexpected turns.
From 14 Up, director Michael Apted has become the main man maintaining the experiment and has developed interesting relationships with the participants, some of whom resented being involved, but still had a deep respect for his work. His questions are often sensitive, thoughtful and effective at drawing out how the subjects feel about the deepest parts of their lives.
As the series progresses, the experimental side gives way to simple human interest, as these people change from being representative of their class to real characters, who affect our emotions. While he does cover Brexit, Apted generally avoids politics and topical issues, focusing on the shared human interest in people’s lives – love, jobs, families, hopes and fears. As he does so, we warm to those who were haughty as children, but have mellowed with exposure to the wider world.
The series sometimes catches more of life than intended. When filming a painfully shy 14 year old Suzy, her dog is chasing a rabbit along the hedge behind her. It delightfully distracts us from feeling her anguish.
Apted has deliberately eschewed the style of more modern documentaries and kept music out of the format in order to preserve its continuity and simply show the power of lives revisited. But with hindsight, that original style reveals a cultural change, as society's attitude to women is now far more inclusive. When it began in 1964, there were fewer expectations placed on women and so most participants were male and of the few women featured, three were constantly shown as a group, further diminishing their individual characters. One confronts Apted in a later episode about why his questions to them were so limited.
Bonus features are fewer than you would think, given the amount of footage taken, but probably that’s because of the amount of editing it would need. A couple of audio commentaries from production staff give interesting background details, such as the task of locating Neil later in life, when he frequently moved around the British Isles and even his family didn’t know where he was. There is interesting background on Apted. But the feature of celebrities commenting on their love for the series and then telling their own stories is both superfluous and unappealing. We don’t warm to them in the same deep way that we have come to know the Up personalities.
Unlike today’s thrill-seeking Reality TV, where psychologists develop cheap tricks to make viewing provocatively exciting, this series is genuinely about its characters, who experience all that life throws at us – including Christian conversion in one case – and so is far more honest, memorable and affecting.
At over 1000 minutes, this is simply a great part of television history.