THE STORY OF US

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

ACTION MEN

The publicity surrounding the latest ‘Panorama’ undercover filming exposé of the old ‘give ‘em a uniform and they think they’re Hitler’ adage – this time concerning G4S staff at an immigration removal centre at Gatwick – evokes memories of the appalling abuse of patients by staff at the Winterbourne View private mental hospital that the same programme exposed six years ago. That Winterbourne View had received a glowing endorsement by the organisation of ostriches known as CQC just months before ‘Panorama’ cameras captured the realities of the regime at the institution not only highlighted the ineptitude of the system, but also reminded TV viewers of how current affairs shows still have the power to right wrongs if television companies are prepared to invest in them.

There is actually no valid excuse for there not being numerous series on terrestrial television in the vein of the ‘Panorama’ Gatwick/G4S programme; people will watch if current affairs are afforded the same level of pre-publicity that the ‘Bake Off’ franchise receives; and if viewers are stirred out of armchair torpor by voting someone off a glorified knobbly knees contest, how much better that a similar reaction is provoked by something that actually matters. But the dumbing down factor, which saw ITV’s twin titans of current affairs, ‘This Week’ and (especially) ‘World in Action’, disappear from the schedules within six years of each other in the 90s, has become a mainstream virus in recent years as ratings are seen as a barometer of significance when in reality they count for far less in an age of Netflix and DVD box-sets.

The BBC’s public service remit, which it is happy to evoke when confronted by criticism but doesn’t always place at the forefront of its scheduling, was once mirrored by its main commercial competitor. The aforementioned ‘World in Action’ was a revelation when it first appeared in 1963, deliberately adopting a brasher approach to investigative journalism than ‘Panorama’, one that took a fearless aim at guilty parties and took no prisoners in the process.

A product of an age when ITV companies really were autonomous entities, ‘Word in Action’ emanated from Granada in Manchester and proved to be a breeding ground for some of the most notable broadcasters in the business, including Jeremy Isaacs, Michael Parkinson, John Pilger, and future Hollywood directors Michael Apted and Paul Greengrass. The latter once reflected on his time working on the show by remembering the Granada chairman had told him ‘Don’t forget, your job’s to make trouble.’ One of the programme’s editors had described its ethos as being ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’

Throughout its 35-year history, ‘World in Action’ shone a light on neglected abuses within society that rightly roused the indignation of viewers – Poulson, poverty, the homeless, the cover-up of industrial accidents, the treatment of the elderly, the Birmingham Six, pirate radio, the British intelligence services, Jonathan Aitken and endless others; in 1984 it also famously sent then-Tory MP Matthew Parris to live on state benefits for a week in Newcastle, an experience that eventually led to his early retirement from politics in favour of a media career. Michael Apted’s prime contribution to the programme was ‘Seven Up’ in 1964, the first instalment in what has become an ongoing series every seven years.

Its premise was to film fourteen seven-year-old children from the full range of social (and in one case) racial classes in Britain at that moment, from cheeky working-class scamps to precocious upper-class toffs, as an innovative critique of how each had their futures mapped out even at such a tender age. Had the original programme been a one-off, no doubt it would still be viewed as a remarkable piece of television documentary, but what made it such an extraordinary concept in the history of British TV was that Michael Apted, a researcher on ‘Seven Up’, was commissioned to direct a sequel seven years later, contrasting the seven-year-old children with their fourteen-year-old selves, to be followed seven years later by a third instalment and so on.

Even though some of the participants have dropped-out, unhappy at the way they had been portrayed on-screen and unwilling to be lifelong participants in a television experiment, the ‘Up’ series has continued to be filmed at seven-yearly intervals ever since, and in the process has created a unique social history of Britain over the course of almost fifty years.

Of all those who have taken part in the series since its inception, perhaps the one to have made the greatest mark, and in turn raised the ‘Up’ series to the pinnacle of British TV’s finest achievements, was introduced as a bright Liverpudlian schoolboy called Neil; his progress from optimistic child to disillusioned adult has been imbued with an existential resonance that has touched a nerve in the British public and has gifted television with some of its most genuinely moving moments as Neil’s life has flashed before the viewer’s eyes in a sequence of engrossing vignettes unparalleled in any other medium. Television doesn’t need the contrived drum-roll drama of announcing the winner of a talent contest when it’s capable of doing this. If only someone would tell that to the wankers who run it.

The ‘Up’ series is one of the rare examples of television that not only justifies the licence fee, but justifies the existence of television itself, vividly demonstrating how, especially in the case of Neil, it can tell a true story with an immediacy that hits an audience in ways that print cannot emulate. In the 60s and 70s, when both the BBC and ITV made ample room for powerful documentary stories in their primetime schedules, the ‘Up’ series seemed like another example of television’s unique ability to reach out and grab the viewer by turning a mirror on the lives of others; but by the 21st Century, surrounded by wall-to-wall reality programmes following the narcissistic bowel movements of every wannabe celebrity whose every inarticulate utterance is a plug for another project in the pipeline, the ‘Up’ series is relatively isolated in a field of its own and reminds both critics and audiences alike what a missed opportunity it has been for the bastard genre it inadvertently spawned.

Like ‘Panorama’, ‘World in Action’ had a prized slot at the heart of the primetime schedules; that it is no longer with us when ‘Panorama’ has continued to prove current affairs shows of this nature can still hit the mark given half the chance is one more damning indictment of an industry reneging on its potential. And the viewer is the loser.

© The Editor