The wry, dry detachment of Larkin’s oft-quoted observation on the cultural significance of 1963 – ‘which was rather late for me’ – makes me wonder if the old monochrome Britain still languishing in the shadow of war vanished forever when the last clump of snow from the unprecedented winter that opened this most transformative of years belatedly melted away in March. As the thaw began, The Beatles hit No.1 for the first time and pointed towards a new kind of Britain. Britain was ready for it. The Profumo Scandal exposed the decadent double-standards of the ruling elite, whereas deference received a further kicking when Ronnie Biggs and his mob robbed Her Majesty’s mail train. To borrow the catchphrase of Danny Boon, the cheesy comedian from ‘Billy Liar’ (released in 1963), ‘It’s all happening!’ And it was.
The pieces were already in place – from the satire boom to the ‘kitchen sink’ school of cinema and theatre – and were evident on the country’s newest and most influential medium, television. The spread of the ITV network across the UK was complete by 1963 and the ITV company that had broken the mould of drama with ‘Coronation Street’, Granada, also revitalised current affairs broadcasting with ‘World in Action’, whose brash, fearless, innovative attitude contrasted dramatically with the somewhat staid ‘Panorama’ and its avuncular host, Richard Dimbleby. It’s doubtful whether the BBC would have commissioned a study of the British class system as seen through the eyes of specially-selected seven-year-olds; but ‘World in Action’ did. The timing, like so much that happened here in 1963, was right.
Watching the original ‘Seven Up’ documentary now, it’s clear the year was on a cusp and not quite ‘Swinging’; indeed, it’s remarkable how Edwardian it all looks when showing the children in the school environment. The working-class kids are crammed into those austere red-brick fortresses most of us attended, whereas the public school lot remain locked in a ‘Tom Brown’ bubble, reciting ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in Latin and enduring military drills overseen by a fascistic little prefect. The characteristic bigging-up to impress peer groups is blatant at both ends of the social scale – the posh boys declaring they read the Financial Times and the tenement scamp claiming he goes to bed at either 10 or 11 o’clock. These children may not have been media-savvy, but they are remarkably self-assured.
As a one-off, ‘Seven Up’ stands on its own as a unique document of a country caught on camera just before the start of the social transformations that the children of 1963 would gradually benefit from. We may well have been left to guess what awaited them, but then something special happened. When a young researcher on ‘Seven Up’ called Michael Apted was asked to direct a follow-up programme seven years later, he tracked down the 14 participants, and the comparisons between the charismatic kids of ‘Seven Up’ and the moody, awkward adolescents of ‘7 Plus Seven’ was a fascinating snapshot of lives in transition. Apted says at that moment he realised the potential of what he had on his hands.
The greatest contrasts between then and now take place in the first three instalments of what became an ongoing series, and the contrasts aren’t merely physical or in the hairstyles and fashions. In 1977, Apted reunited the 14 again for ‘21 Up’, when the young adults were reaping the rewards of the decade that began with the first programme. Although the five participants to go through the private and public school systems – Charles, Andrew, John, Bruce and Suzy – had all travelled the educational routes already mapped-out for them in ‘Seven Up’, others denied their privileges were making their way in a way that reflected the social mobility revolution: farmer’s son Nick and suburban Scouser Peter were both at university, whereas the three East End girls – Jackie, Lynn and Sue – were all earning enough to buy their own homes; this factor makes ‘21 Up’ seem as distant now as the original documentary. However, perhaps the first real indication that some of these lives were destined to make a massive emotional impact on the audience came with Neil in ‘21 Up’.
The bright and bubbly buddy of Peter in ‘Seven Up’ had dropped-out of university after failing to fulfil the academic expectations of his parents and was doing menial work whilst living in a London squat. His frustration and sense of failure seem to convey world-weariness beyond his years; for the viewers, Neil’s story touched a real nerve and became the most gripping of all. Seven years later, there was genuine shock when he appeared in ‘28 Up’, hitchhiking his way through the Scottish highlands and of no fixed abode. Displaying nervous tics, clad in ill-fitting charity shop clothes and his hair shorn, he confessed ‘I can’t see any immediate future at all’. He looked dangerously like a man who had run out of everything.
Neil didn’t fit the era’s image of an economic casualty as seen in, say, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ (i.e. a victim of deindustrialisation); he was more an early casualty of the collapse of social mobility’s aspirations, someone who had fallen through the cracks from the lower middle-classes. His struggles have formed the series’ most compelling narrative; every time it comes around, Neil’s update is always left till last. There was a touching intervention at one stage from fellow participant Bruce, demonstrating the compassion that had been visible in his seven-year-old ambition to become a missionary (one member of the family who seems to have fulfilled the Jesuit maxim at the heart of the show’s remit). Bruce offered Neil the spare bedroom and formed a friendship that enabled Neil to get back on his feet. Being a Lib Dem councillor and a lay-preacher seemed to give Neil a degree of purpose he’d so painfully lacked in earlier instalments, but his troubled past means viewers always fear the worst every seven years whilst simultaneously hoping for the best.
Our concern for Neil is potent because this remarkable project has provoked an emotional investment in its participants that means we genuinely care what happens to them. We see the stages of life unfold through them; as they age, their parents die but their offspring provide them with grandchildren. We see their hair going grey and sometimes fade away; we see their waistlines expand; but we also see them achieve something approaching contentment. Most have even managed a level of resigned acceptance with the intrusion of the series into their lives, something that has sometimes been manifested as bristly resentment resulting in the odd absence from an instalment.
But, of course, the older they get, the closer creeps their mortality. Cockney cabbie Tony has suffered health scares, farmer’s son and physicist Nick is seriously ill with cancer, and – saddest of all – librarian Lynn passed away just a year after ’56 Up’, the first of the gang to die. Yet, this is life; there is tragedy, but there is triumph. Barnardo’s boys Paul and Symon are two of the most grounded participants of all – both having a tough start in life yet reaching near-retirement age comfortable in their own skins. And this ninth instalment of a programme that stands as a towering tribute to the human spirit ended with a wonderfully elegiac shot of Neil riding his bike, musing on the collapse of his marriage. ‘The idea of true love, which I think exists, occurs so seldom,’ he says. ‘If it occurs once in somebody’s life, they’re extremely lucky; for it then to happen, and then the potential can’t be fulfilled, is heartbreaking.’
Always moving, but never sentimental – the ‘Up’ series really is an unparalleled example of what television as a medium is capable of and so rarely aims for. It was a product of its time, our time. We won’t see its like again.
© The Editor