Up Series

Michael Apted

The Up Series is a series of documentary films produced by Granada Television that have followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old. The documentary has had eight episodes spanning 49 years (one episode every seven years) and the documentary has been broadcast on both ITV and BBC.

The children were selected to represent the range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain at that time, with the explicit assumption that each child’s social class predetermines their future. Every seven years, the director, Michael Apted, films material from those of the fourteen who choose to participate.

The aim of the series is stated at the beginning of ‘7 Up’ as: ‘Why do we bring these children together? Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The union leader and the business executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.’ The first film in the series, Seven Up!, was directed by Paul Almond and commissioned by Granada Television as a program in the ‘World in Action’ series broadcast in 1964. From ‘7 Plus Seven’ onward the films have been directed by Michael Apted, who had been a researcher on ‘Seven Up!’ and chose the original children with Gordon McDougall. The premise of the film was taken from the Jesuit motto ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,’ which is based on a quotation by Francis Xavier. The 1998 program was commissioned by BBC One, although still produced for them by Granada Television.

We are first introduced to the subjects on a group visit to London Zoo, where the narrator announces ‘We brought these 20 children together for the very first time.’ The series, however, only follows fourteen. The participants were chosen in an attempt to represent different social classes in Britain in the 1960s. Apted admits in the commentary track of the ’42 Up’ DVD that he was asked to find children at the extremes. Because the show was not originally intended to become a repeating series, no long-term contract was signed with the participants. The interviews since ‘Seven Up!’ have been voluntary, although the participants have been paid their appearance in each film, as well as equal parts of any prize the film may win, says Apted. Each subject is filmed in about two days and the interview itself takes more than six hours. In an interview with the BBC’s Will Gompertz shortly before the broadcast of ’56 Up,’ Apted admitted that it had been a poor decision to include only four female participants.

Andrew was one of three boys chosen from the same pre-preparatory school in the wealthy London suburb of Kensington (the other two being Charles and John). The three are introduced in ‘Seven Up!’ singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (an Autrailian folk song) in Latin. At the age of seven, when asked what newspaper he reads, if any, Andrew stated that he reads ‘The Financial Times’ (although he later revealed he was in fact just repeating what his father had told him when asked the same question). All three could say which prep schools, public schools and universities they planned to attend (Oxford or Cambridge in all cases); two named the specific Oxbridge college they intended to join. Andrew Brackfield’s academic career culminated in his studying at Trinity College, Cambridge. Andrew subsequently became a solicitor, married and raised a family. He is the only one out of the three to have been in all the ‘Up’ films.

Charles Furneaux did not make it into Oxford as an undergraduate. At 21 he said he was glad to have avoided the ‘prep school–Marlborough–Oxbridge conveyor belt’ by going to Durham University instead, later attending Oxford as a post-graduate student. Charles has worked in journalism in varying capacities over the years, including as a producer for the BBC, and in the making of documentary films, including ‘Touching the Void.’ He chose not to appear in the series after ’21 Up,’ other than the contribution of an occasional photograph. In 2005, Apted alleged that Charles had attempted to sue him when he refused to remove his likeness from the archive sequences in ’49 Up.’ Apted also commented on the irony that as a documentary maker himself, Charles was the only one who refused to continue. By the time of ’56 Up,’ all references to Charles had been removed other than in fleeting glimpses of joint shots with Andrew and John.

John Brisby, who was vocal on politics by 14, attended Oxford and became a barrister. He married Claire, the daughter of Sir Donald Logan, a former ambassador to Bulgaria. Brisby devotes himself to charities related to Bulgaria, and hopes to reclaim family land there that had been nationalized. He is a great-great-grandson of the first Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Todor Burmov. Brisby said in ’35 Up’ that he only does the films to give more publicity to his chosen charities. In ’56 Up,’ he criticized Apted’s decision to originally portray him as part of the ‘privileged upper class.’ He related that his father had died when he was 9 and his mother had to work to put him through private school. He attended Oxford University on a scholarship.

Suzanne (Suzy) Lusk came from a wealthy background and was first filmed at a boarding school. Her parents divorced around the time of ‘7 Plus Seven.’ She then dropped out of school at the age of 16, deciding to travel to Paris. By 21, she had formed a strong negative opinion about marriage, though this soon changed dramatically. Her husband, Rupert Dewey, is a solicitor in Bath and they have three children, two boys and a girl. She became a bereavement counsellor. Jackie Bassett was one of three girls who were chosen from the same primary school, as Lynn and Sue, in a working-class neighborhood of east London. She eventually went to a comprehensive school and married at age 19. Jackie went through several different jobs, divorced and raised her children as a single parent. After attending the same primary school as Jackie and Sue, Lynn Johnson attended a grammar school. She went on to marry at 19 and become a children’s librarian at 21. She later became a school librarian and remained in that career until being made redundant due to budget cuts. Susan (Sue) Davis attended the same primary school as Jackie and Lynn and following that attended a comprehensive school. Sue married at 24 and had two children before getting divorced. She has been engaged to her current boyfriend for 14 years. She works as a university administrator for Queen Mary university, despite not having gone to university herself.

Tony Walker was chosen from a primary school in the East End of London who is introduced along with his girlfriend Michelle. He wanted to be a jockey at 7 and was at a stable training as one by 14. By 21 his chance had come and gone after riding in three races before giving it up. He was proud to have competed against Lester Piggott. He then ‘did The Knowledge’ and made a comfortable life for himself and his family as a London taxi driver. His later dream of becoming an actor has met with modest success; he has had small parts as an extra (almost always playing a cabbie) in several TV programs since 1986. His wife Debbie was carrying their third child in ’28 Up’ and she reveals in ’35 Up’ that she lost that baby but has since had another; she admits that losing their third child placed a tremendous stress on their relationship. Also in ’35 Up,’ Tony admitted that being in a monogamous relationship was becoming a strain and by ’42 Up’ he had actually committed adultery, though he and his wife have got past it and are still together. By ’42 Up,’ he had moved to Essex and by ’49 Up’ owned two homes, including a holiday home in Spain.

Paul Kligerman was at a charity-based boarding school at 7, his parents having divorced and he having been left with his father. Soon after ‘Seven Up!’ his father and stepmother moved the family to Australia, where he has remained in the Melbourne area ever since. By 21, he had more presence, long hair, and a girlfriend whom he later married and remains with today. After leaving school he was employed as a bricklayer and later set up his own business. In ’49 Up’ he is working for a sign-making company. In both ’21 Up’ and ’49 Up,’ Paul was reunited with Symon, who had attended the same boarding school; portions of their time together are included in both films. By ’56 Up’ Paul had started work at a local retirement village with his wife Susan. He does odd jobs and maintenance of the small units and gardens.

The only participant with a non-white background is mixed-race. Symon Basterfield was chosen from the same charity home as Paul. He was an illegitimate child, who apparently never got to know his black father, and had left the charity home to live with his white mother by the time of the ‘7 Plus Seven’ filming; her depression is alluded to as the cause for him being in the home. As the filming for ’35 Up’ was taking place, he was going through a divorce from his first wife and mother of his five children, and he elected not to take part in that film. Symon returned for ’42 Up’ and ’49 Up,’ remarried with one son and one stepdaughter. In ’49 Up,’ he and his wife had become foster parents.

William Nicholas (Nick) Hitchon was raised on a small farm in Arncliffe, a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales. He was educated in a one-room school four miles’ walk from his home, and later at a boarding school. He went to Oxford University and then moved to the United States to work as a nuclear physicist. He married another British ex-pat, who participated in ’28 Up’ but was displeased with how her comments were received by viewers, many of whom apparently concluded that the marriage was doomed. She declined to appear in ’35 Up’ and ’42 Up.’ By ’49 Up’ the couple had divorced and Nick had remarried, this time to Cryss Brunner, who is ten years his senior and teaches in Minneapolis. Nick is currently a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

Peter Davies went to the same middle-class Liverpool suburban school as Neil, who, like Peter, wanted to be an astronaut. Peter drifted through university, and by age 28 he was an underpaid and seemingly uninspired school teacher. Peter dropped out of the series after ’28 Up,’ following a tabloid press campaign against him after he criticized the government of Margaret Thatcher in his interview. In the director’s commentary for ’42 Up’ it is stated that he later divorced, took up study of the law, has become a lawyer, re-married, had children and moved back to Liverpool. He made a surprise return to the series in ’56 Up’ to promote his band, the Liverpool-based country-influenced The Good Intentions.

From a ‘Liverpool suburb,’ Neil Hughes turned out to be perhaps the most unpredictable of the entire group. At seven he was funny and full of life and hope. By the time of ’21 Up’ he was living in a squat in London, having dropped out of Aberdeen University after one term, and was finding work as he could on building sites. During the interview he is clearly in an agitated state, and it becomes apparent that he had been having mental health issues and was struggling to cope with life. At 28 he was still homeless, although now in Scotland; by 35 he was living in a council house on the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland, writing and appearing in the local pantomime. By the time of ’42 Up’ he had finally found some stability in his life (with some help from Bruce — he was living in Bruce’s apartment in London and Bruce had become a source of emotional support) and was involved in local council politics, as a Liberal Democrat in the London Borough of Hackney. By the time of ’49 Up,’ he is a District Councillor in the Eden district of Cumbria, in North West England.

Bruce Balden was an idealist who was concerned with poverty and racial discrimination and wanted to become a missionary. He was attending a prestigious boarding school. At the age of seven, he said that his greatest desire was to see his father, who was a soldier in Rhodesia, and he seemed a little abandoned. Bruce studied mathematics at Oxford University and used his education to teach children in the East End of London and Sylhet, Bangladesh. Before ’42 Up,’ he married, and Apted broke the seven-year structure of the films to film Bruce’s wedding, which was also attended by Neil. Eventually becoming burned out with teaching in the East End, Bruce currently teaches at St Albans School, Hertfordshire, a prestigious public school. Between ’42 Up’ and ’49 Up,’ he had two sons, and is happily married to a fellow teacher.

The series has received extraordinary praise over the years, the epitome of which may be Roger Ebert’s comments that it is ‘an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium,’ that the films ‘penetrate to the central mystery of life,’ and that the series is among his top ten films of all time. Attempts have been made to repeat the series with subjects in the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, and South Africa. The series has also been satirized; The Simpsons’ 2007 episode ‘Springfield Up’ is narrated by an Apted-like filmmaker who depicts the past and current lives of a group of Springfield residents he has revisited every eight years.

The original hypothesis of ‘Seven Up!’ was that class structure is so strong in the UK that a person’s life path would be set at birth. The producer of the original program had at one point thought to line the children up on the street, have three of them step forward and narrate ‘of these twenty children, only three will be successful’ (an idea which was not used). The idea of class immobility held up in most, but not all, cases as the series has progressed. The children from the working classes have by and large remained in those circles, though Tony seems to have become more middle class. Apted has said that one of his regrets is that they did not take feminism in to account, and consequently had fewer girls in their study and did not select them on the basis of any possible careers they might choose.

Although it began as a political documentary, the series has become a film of human nature and existentialism. In the director’s commentary for ’42 Up,’ Apted comments that he did not realize the series had changed tone from political to personal until ’21 Up,’ when he showed the film to American friends who encouraged him to submit it (successfully) to American film festivals. Apted also comments that this realization was a relief to him and allowed the films to breathe a little more. However, the ‘Up’ series has also been criticized by both ethnographers and the subjects themselves for its editing style. Mitchell Duneier has pointed out that Apted has the ability to create causal relationships between a character’s past and present that might not actually exist. Apted has acknowledged this fact, pointing out that in ’21 Up’ he believed Tony would soon be in prison so he filmed him around dangerous areas for use in later films. Over the course of the project the program has in varying degrees had a direct effect on the lives of its participants.

The series became popular enough that the participants often speak of being recognized in public. Their opinions of being involved in the series are often mentioned, and vary greatly among the participants. John refers to the program as a poison pill that he is subjected to every seven years, while Paul’s wife credits the series for keeping their marriage together. Michael Apted has commented that one of the big surprises between filming ’42 Up’ and ’49 Up’ was the impact of reality television. The subjects really wanted to talk about how they saw their contribution to the series in the light of reality TV. Paul and Nick were flown back to England at Granada’s expense for the filming of ’35 Up’ and ’42 Up’ respectively. Paul was flown back again for ’49 Up’ and visited Symon. Bruce was affected by Neil’s plight and offered him temporary shelter in his home shortly before ’42 Up,’ allowing Neil time to get settled in London. Despite Neil’s eccentricities during his two-month stay, they clearly remained friends, with Neil later giving a reading at Bruce’s wedding.

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