The British documentary film Seven Up!, broadcast for the first time in 1964, was originally intended to be a single, stand-alone program. Made by Granada Television for the current affairs program World in Action, it focused on 14 seven-year-old children from a variety of backgrounds across England. According to Paul Almond, the director of the original film, the idea was to “find out what little boys and little girls of different classes thought about.” Using the Jesuit saying “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man” as an epigraph, the film served as a critique of the class constraints of British society as it teetered on the cusp of transformation, from a period of postwar austerity to the Swinging Sixties.
As the initial program developed into a series directed by Michael Apted, who had been a 22-year-old researcher on the first show, it revisited the original kids every seven years to check on their progress and ask questions about their lives, families, jobs, leisure, and, increasingly, the impact of their involvement in the well-known Up series. With the most recent installment, 56 Up, released in 2012, and with the participants reaching advanced middle age, the epic nature of a film experiment meant to span a generation’s lifetime has more clearly come into focus.
The original Seven Up! show emerged out of the experimental ethos of documentary filmmaking in the early 1960s, as new film technologies and budding social movements encouraged the testing of limits. Seven Up! was preceded by such experimental documentary film classics as Chronicle of a Summer (1961) from anthropologist Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin. Chronicle followed individuals of diverse backgrounds over the course of a summer in Paris, forcing them into unexpected relationships with each other and then, in reflexive fashion, gathering them with the filmmakers in an auditorium at the Musée de l’Homme to watch the results and to comment on the nature of life, representation, and “truth” in film. However, as the Up series has developed over time, it has come to resemble an even earlier kind of film experiment: the very first science films at the birth of the 20th century, in which audiences watched such wonders as flowers coming into bloom through time-lapse motion-picture photography. As scholars have noted, these early films captured the imagination of scientists and the vaudeville-going public alike. They did so by using film’s ability to manipulate time and thereby offer a chance to watch life unfold in ways not readily accessible to the naked eye, forcing viewers to contemplate anew the nature of time, growth, and transformation. The ability to watch the Up series, now available as a DVD box set, in its entirety and in rapid succession offers a similarly powerful experience. Here, the organisms in front of the lens are people, the series a study of how we both change and stay the same over the course of the life cycle, of what it’s like to age, and, ultimately, of what it means to be human.
Even as the series becomes a grander, still-unfolding experiment in life itself, it nevertheless also remains a revealing study of class—even when some participants and the director deny that it is. One participant, John, a well-dressed, conservative barrister from a privileged background, argues vigorously at age 56 that the original class premise of the 1964 film and its portrayal of him was a “fraud.” To him, the idea that England was “still in the grips of a Dickensian class system” and that one’s social position would be portrayed as a handed-down and seemingly “indestructible birthright” was already outmoded in the 1960s and remains so in the current moment. Apted, who went on to direct fiction films ranging from Coal Miner’s Daughter to a James Bond movie, seemed in part to agree in a 2006 interview. Presumably reflecting the changed political tenor of intervening decades, he stated, “I think [those kinds] of oppressive class barriers have diminished a lot…. [The film] definitely started out with a political agenda, for this very socialist, left-wing company, Granada Television, working on a very, very provocative program. And this was a film saying: this was the state of the country. Social barriers shouldn’t exist…. The humanity of the film, I think, came out after 21 [Up]. We had kind of grown through that. Those arguments weren’t meaningful anymore. What was meaningful was the people.” While rightly placing his subjects’ humanity front and center, Apted’s interpretation of his project falls short. The Up series illuminates the ongoing centrality—not the diminishing significance—of class; but it also demands a rethinking of the concept of class itself.
The original Seven Up! program depicts class as an unyielding set of distinct boxes into which people can be neatly fit and that are assumed to determine their life courses. As a series, the Up films test Seven Up!’s original idea by offering a longitudinal experiment in how and whether class reproduces itself over time. In the first program, we are introduced to the participants: 4 girls and 10 boys from a variety of backgrounds, including two middle-class boys from suburban Liverpool; four wealthy boys at elite prep and boarding schools; an isolated farm boy from a modest family; a rich country girl; a boy and a trio of working-class girlfriends from London’s East End; and two boys from a charity-sponsored children’s home. In the original show, John, Andrew, and Charles, children at an elite prep school, sit on a settee, talking in ways that are both amusing and highly classist. They offer detailed plans for their continuing education, ending with Oxford and Cambridge, and they share such opinions as that paying for school is a good thing, since without it “all the poor children would come rushing in.” In contrast, Paul, a working-class child temporarily placed in the charity-run children’s home, asks the filmmakers, “What is a university?” At the end of the film, the filmmakers gather the children in London, giving them spaces to interact: at a zoo, a playground, and a party (a social experiment on film reminiscent of the ending of Chronicle of a Summer). Afterward, the wealthy boys describe the poorer children as “dirty” and “tough,” while rough-and-tumble Tony from the East End, when asked about rich people, proclaims they are “nuts” and mimics taking a swing at one. In short, the individual children served as ideal types meant to illustrate the rungs of a class hierarchy in a historically stratified British society.
As the series unfolds, many things in fact play out according to the original film’s premise: John and Andrew go on to Oxbridge and become lawyers exactly as they proclaimed they would; Symon, who grew up in the charity children’s home, becomes a forklift operator; Tony from the East End, a taxi driver. Yet there are also surprises. Some are a product of personal struggles and life events more than a question of where the participants end up in class terms. In 21 Up, we see Suzy, the child of wealthy rural parents, traumatized by her parents’ divorce, a school dropout at an early age, tense, chain-smoking, and deeply unhappy; seven years later, she is a young mother and wife on a rural estate, radiating calm and contentment. We see Neil transformed from a charming, cheerful boy of seven from the Liverpool suburbs, to a peripatetic young adult grappling with mental illness and homelessness, to a middle-age man gradually rebuilding his life and entering local politics exactly as he once dreamed at 21. Although most participants stayed on the life course predicted by their class backgrounds, not all have: isolated Yorkshire farm boy Nick goes to Oxford and becomes a nuclear physicist at a US university, while Sue, an East Ender from a working class background who never went to college and survived on public aid as a divorced single mom, ends up administering a University of London program and buying a comfortable suburban home with her new fiancé. Thus we see not only how those from higher-class backgrounds reproduce those backgrounds and how working-class kids end up (usually) with working-class jobs, but also the bumps and struggles along the way, the dreams realized and left unfulfilled, the constant motion of class as a process of living lives filled with varying degrees of constraint and opportunity.
In the Up series, the frictions inherent in reproducing and transforming class emerge for the viewers at seven-year intervals. This time-collapsing lens offers insight into the old chicken-and-egg question of “structure” versus “agency.” How much should we emphasize the power-laden social “structures” that predate ourselves, that configure our life choices and the societies in which we live, versus our ability to act in the world, to shape our own futures, and to make meaning of our own existence? In addition, where do luck, contingency, and unintended consequences fit into the equation? Many on the left emphasize structural constraints. Doing so enables them to critique those with the power to make decisions that further entrench existing inequalities. The argument—“see how stuck and abused the poor and working class are in our current system”—is meant to underscore the need to transform society itself. Such critics rightly observe that class positioning has a powerful tendency to repeat itself across generations. Such realities are readily apparent in the England of the Up series, in which, despite a certain postwar economic leveling, nearly all the children (and their children in turn) end up in class positions similar to those in which they were raised.
Yet only emphasizing the constraints on our lives and actions can feel like an insult to those placed in such boxes. And it suggests a God’s-eye view in which individuals or groups are presumed to have a preordained place in society, downplaying the ability of people to make meaning of or transform their lives. As Shmuel, a tailor-cum-philosopher, warns anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff in her classic ethnography Number Our Days, “People jump around. They are like a ball. Rubbery, they bounce.” He warns her against trying to “stick a pin” in people by assuming it’s possible to define them, deflating them in the process. “Don’t try to make them stand still for your convenience,” he says. “You don’t ever know them. Let people surprise you.” Does Tony’s working-class position as a cabbie from the East End, in fact, capture the richness of his life and dreams? Or do we also need to let him surprise us? In 7 Plus Seven, we watch as Tony apprentices as a jockey. Although he only raced professionally on a few occasions, his time at the track is a key life experience. Later, as a taxi driver who shares a cab with his taxi-driving wife, Debbie, he relishes living large, taking acting classes at night and moonlighting as a movie extra, playing golf at fancy country clubs, and, eventually, buying a holiday home in Spain with a big pool for the grandkids. He lives his class aspirations through the material desires that postwar prosperity and welfare state policies placed within reach for his generation, even as his comfortable “middle-class” life seemingly contrasts with his heavy working-class accent and limited educational background.
Many of the series’s participants downplay structural constraints and instead emphasize their own choices. Although some might see this as faulty or wishful thinking, the participants do so for different and interesting reasons. Like many of his political conservative counterparts in the US, John insists that it was his hard work that allowed him to become a prominent barrister. He resents the assumption in the early Up films that elite boys like himself merely inherited their privileges. In 56 Up, John challenges the early films for failing to acknowledge his struggles: his father had died when he was nine, his mother had to work to put him through his boarding school, and he attended Oxford on scholarship. Yet, in earlier interviews, we also learn crucial information that makes the lineage of his particular brand of conservatism clearer. John’s maternal great-great-grandfather had been the first Prime Minister of Bulgaria and his family was displaced from their land and position by the Communist takeover. (Similar bitterness about mid-century communist extremes also fueled the conservatism of prominent European-born thinkers like Friedrich Hayek—who had a strong influence on Margaret Thatcher—and Ayn Rand.) In midlife, John appears more at ease. In the intervening years, he married the daughter of a former Bulgarian ambassador and, when not serving as a barrister, divides his time between philanthropy for an impoverished postsocialist Bulgaria and gardening at his country home outside London. In short, his concerns reflect the social style of an older elite rather than that of the harsher newer capitalism dominating 21st-century financial centers like London, where rarefied social backgrounds matter less and a raw interest in competitive acquisition more.
Although John emphasizes his own struggles to continue his elite education (and at 21 argues that the children of some factory workers with their “huge” wages could also have sent their children to Oxbridge if they had valued it), he ignores the importance of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural” and “social capital,” or the kind of cultural tastes and habits as well as the social connections that signal and help reproduce particular class positions. In acknowledging that he has some regrets about not going into politics, John notes in passing that his two oldest friends from childhood have since become government Ministers—an indication of the “social capital” he has possessed from an early age that would be inconceivable to Symon and Paul, former wards in a children’s home. Class emerges in such biographical trajectories, then, not only in terms of rigid economic positioning, but in the social and cultural capital that may help us—or not—along the way.
It is when envisioning the future of their own children that some working-class participants begin to emphasize limitations on their own life paths that they had previously denied.
Other participants in the films also emphasize their own actions and downplay structural constraints, but for very different reasons and with greater ambivalence. The films follow the life courses of working-class East End childhood friends Jackie, Lynn, and Sue. At 21, Jackie states that “I’ve had the opportunities in life that I’ve wanted.” Lynn concurs, “In my life, I’ve been able to do more or less what I’ve wanted to do.” Sue, at 28, adds, “I think we all could have gone any way we wanted at that time within our own capabilities. I mean, we chose our own jobs.” In 35 Up, however, Sue contradicts her earlier statement, saying, “We only had a limited choice anyway, truth be told. We didn’t have the choice of private education because [our parents] couldn’t have afforded it. So we just went to the school that we wanted to go to and made the best of it while we were there. That is something perhaps when it comes to our children, we’d say, why not go further?” We also hear Symon, the only non-white participant and the child of a single mom, suggesting he is largely content with his job as a laborer in a meat company and, subsequently, as a forklift operator. Later, after marrying a dynamic second wife, he suggests that she would never have allowed him to settle for this life path; perhaps he might have been better suited to being an accountant instead? Jackie, in 56 Up, notes, “I’ve reached a level in my life that I’m happy with; I enjoy being me.” Yet, in the same interview, she also states, “I’d like to go back to school so I can hold a conversation with anyone in the world and know what I’m talking about … I’d love to start my education all over again.” Such ambivalence is linked to the reality that we make sense of our choices and desires in tandem with the social circumstances and life stages in which we find ourselves.
As Sue suggests, it is when envisioning the future of their own children that some working-class participants begin to emphasize limitations on their own life paths that they had previously denied. Jackie in 42 Up says, “I have no doubts I could have done more. Maybe I was lazy. My dad said, maybe he could have pushed me harder. Maybe I’ll push my kids harder than I was.” Yet, when their kids eventually choose not to go to college and instead reproduce their parents’ working-class life (or the lower-level white-collar work that has increasingly replaced it), their parents largely show their support. When Lynn is asked whether she’s disappointed that neither of her daughters went to university, she states “no” emphatically: “You have to accept it’s their lives.”
Because class unequally positions people in relation to each other, class is always a dialogue. The ambivalence that some working-class participants acknowledge about their own lives is further muddied by the class dynamics of their conversations with director Michael Apted. One of the fascinating aspects of the Up series is watching the relationship between filmmaker and subjects evolve and become more honest over the course of many decades. In the later films, participants refer to Apted onscreen as “Michael,” and, along with greater intimacy, there is also a growing tendency to more openly argue with him and the implications of the films. While John, the conservative barrister, had from 14 on challenged the political orientation of the film’s premise and his portrayal as a “type,” Apted’s own class background as a driven middle-class suburban boy and scholarship student who eventually studied law at Cambridge also shapes his encounters with Up’s participants. When discussing with Symon his job as a laborer, Apted bluntly asks a taken-aback and somewhat hurt-looking Symon, “Did you never feel you should be doing better jobs than this? Aren’t you worth more than this?” In 35 Up, Apted challenges taxi-driving Tony, who had been reveling in the fullness of the life experiences he’s managed to have as a jockey, a movie extra, and, fleetingly, a pub owner. Apted counters Tony’s enthusiasm by suggesting his successes were instead failures: “But you didn’t pull it off? You didn’t pull [being] a jockey off; you haven’t made it as an actor; you didn’t pull off the pub, [did you]?” When Apted later watched the film in a theater, he noted that the audience had gasped aloud at his “tough” question.
His questioning provokes anger from Jackie and Lynn at 21, when he challenges them on getting married at 19, presumably beginning the process of reproducing working-class lives. Lynn says bitingly, “You think, Christ, what have I done!” Later, in 49 Up, when Jackie describes her youngest son as being like her, Apted asks if that worries her. She responds, “How dare you say that to me! Is that a worry? Why would that be a worry? Do you think I turned out badly?” And, later, she challenges his earlier presumptions of her by saying, “I think I’m actually more intelligent than you thought I would be.”
In short, when participants from working-class backgrounds like Jackie and Lynn state forcefully that they’ve done what they wanted and made their own paths in life, it’s hard to escape the feeling that their real point is to validate the worth of those lives and choices. They must do so in the face of Apted’s quiet presumption that they have somehow failed by not escaping their class positioning, no matter how sympathetic they might be as individuals. After all, being placed in a box at the lower end of the social hierarchy to be pitied or worried over by audiences (or scholars)—or to have a pin put through us, in Shmuel’s phrase—is insulting. If the series bears resemblances to early “science” experiments on film, this is an experiment in which the subjects speak back and, at times, try to redefine the terms of the engagement and how they are being perceived. Jackie and Lynn do so by vigorously insisting upon the value of their life paths.
That value—for many of the working-class participants, as well as some of the more middle-class—is bound up more with relationships than with occupational success. Of the late-teen marriages of which Apted was critical, Jackie’s ended in divorce; Lynn’s marriage, however, was to a postal worker whom she continues to treasure and call her “soulmate” 37 years later. Lynn didn’t go on to college but became a dedicated children’s librarian, although austerity measures have recently cost her the job. Still, she has long described her “family unit” of husband, children, and grandchildren as the core of her life. Similarly, despite—or because of—the scars of Symon’s and Paul’s disrupted childhoods in a children’s home (still evident in Symon’s self-protective passivity and Paul’s proclaimed lack of confidence), both emphasize family relationships as what makes their lives meaningful. Both marry wives who laughingly describe themselves as “noisy women” and focus on them and the kids. Tony, as well, has emphasized love of family as his core value from the time he was a teenager. Despite the self-induced troubles in his marriage linked to his infidelities, he proclaims at 56 that he “owes everything” to his wife, Debbie, and once again affirms his love of children and grandchildren in making him a happy man.
To his credit, Apted allows us to see how much of a class dialogue the series has been; he is brave to incorporate challenges his participants offered into the storylines of the films.
Such emphasis on family mirrors the findings of Barbara Jensen, a psychologist and counselor, who contrasts the middle- and upper-middle-class focus on individual achievement and career success as central to one’s self-definition, with the values of “belonging” and participation within extended relationships as core pleasures and sources of identity for many working-class people. The upper-middle-class participants in the film also stress the importance of relationships in their lives (something particularly crucial for women like Suzy or Jane, Andrew’s wife, who stayed home out of a desire to care for their children and who, financially, did not need to work). Yet, the belief that one’s job or career doesn’t fundamentally define the meaning of one’s existence is most evident among the working-class participants. It’s evident in Symon’s repeated assertion that one should work to live, not live to work, and in Paul’s statement at 56 that success is “just about getting on with life and enjoying our grandchildren, children, and friends,” to which he laughingly adds, “work just gets in the way.”
To his credit, Apted allows us to see how much of a class dialogue the series has been; he is brave to incorporate challenges his participants offered into the storylines of the films. In interviews, he acknowledges his own early tendency to judge his participants’ lives and to presume he could foresee their life outcomes. “I got into a situation,” he affirms, “I think, early on, where I became judgmental about people—that if they didn’t agree with my standards of success, failure, happiness, whatever, then I would feel they were the lesser for it. And also I try to play God. I try to predict what might happen to people, and sort of set it all up for that. And I did that, and that was an embarrassing mistake.” For example, Apted tried to “stick a pin” in Tony, by suggesting that the fast-talking young man whom we witnessed taking bets at the dog races in 21 Up might end up a criminal rather than the stable taxi driver and devoted father he would become.
Apted has also acknowledged the blind spots imposed by his own class-laden vision of success. When asked if he found any surprises in filming 56 Up, his response is worth quoting in detail: “I thought they’d be getting depressed, worried about age, very worried about the economic climate, looking back on their lives, maybe, sometimes with regret. But no … What was interesting to me was that a lot of them had found a real kind of comfort in their families and extended families. I was of the belief in my life that you can’t have everything. I have pursued a career. I was ambitious, and I paid a price for it. I wasn’t as good a father or a husband as I should have been, and sometimes I thought, ‘Well, maybe that’s my way and maybe that’s the right way.’ But then I saw the payoff, that people who had put their energies into their families and their loyalties into their families, that at this age—in their mid-50s, you know—that they got real pleasure and power from it.”
The question of how class is portrayed in the Up series can never, of course, be disentangled from questions of representation in documentary film more generally. Visual representations are inevitably partial and may have serious consequences, as the Up series makes clear. In 56 Up, we witness the return of Peter, the suburban Liverpool friend of Neil in the original series, who had disappeared from the program for decades. In 28 Up, as a schoolteacher frustrated with budget cuts, he had criticized Thatcherite policies and was so harassed by hate mail and tabloid attacks that he dropped out of the series. After studying law and becoming a civil servant, he eventually returns for 56 Up in order to promote the alternative country music band he has formed with his wife.
The limited nature of what film can convey is also part of the discussion. Nick, the country child turned nuclear physicist, views the overall Up series experiment as an “important” one. Yet, he acknowledges that after all the time and activity required to shoot each film and his efforts to find meaningful things to say, there is a disappointment in watching the final film: “They present this thing with little snippets of your life and, it’s like, ‘that’s all there is to me’?!” Although the acute sensory richness of visual images encourages us to believe that it captures life in a fuller and richer way than the written word, its truths are always just as partial. Neil, after suffering periods of mental illness and philosophically pondering the meaning of his own life throughout the series, describes how he has been inundated over the years with mail from viewers who have been touched by or identify with his story. Although in an earlier film he describes this as positive and a source of support, by 56 Up he feels the need to set the record straight. “For so many millions of people, I’m here wearing my heart on my sleeve and they think they know absolutely everything about me,” he notes with some annoyance. Based on the letters he has received from viewers, he argues, this is hardly the case.
What should we conclude, then, from the representations of social class found in this series? Despite John’s and even Apted’s later downplaying of social class, what we have seen in recent years, if anything, is a resurgence of its importance. In the wake of the free market fervor of political leaders like Thatcher and Reagan, its “kinder” face in Blair and Clinton, and its variations in those who have since followed, inequality has greatly expanded. The nature of that inequality, however, has changed. In the original 1964 film, the social hierarchies of the early 20th century were still evident. Since then, an older social order in which John and Andrew could contemplate with great accuracy their futures has given way to a more highly competitive and diverse world. Andrew, a lawyer who for a time specialized in mergers and acquisitions for a global company based in the City of London, the UK’s financial center, and who survives a round of layoffs after it is bought out, notes that social distinctions are now less important and that there are “successful people from all backgrounds.” Thinking about his own children’s paths, he points out the greater degree of competition for young people, “Just because you’ve had opportunities, doesn’t mean you’ll pull through.” His implication is that the time when a seven-year-old on a settee could blithely assume a clear path to Oxford, and the kind of life that suggested, is over. This doesn’t mean, however, that class is not relevant, only that it’s changed. As Andrew observes, “There still is a class system, but it’s based more on financial success.”
This new world is not only one dominated by money earned through finance, it is also one in which England, like many other countries, is far more ethnically diverse than when the series began, one where decent-paying laboring jobs are a dying breed, where advanced education is increasingly necessary for employment, and where dressing up for low-level service jobs hides a greater degree of precariousness beneath. The Seven Up! generation, born in 1956, were largely able to ride a baby-boom era of postwar economic leveling that made it possible for someone like Tony, born to an impoverished East End family, to use a stable working-class job to buy a holiday home near the ocean in Spain. The fact that class advantage tends to reproduce itself was perhaps less viscerally felt in an era when people like Tony, or Paul, as a bricklayer in Australia, could still lead lives of relative material comfort and security. But will this be the case for later generations?
To understand more, the series’s story of class must inevitably continue with the participants’ children, exceeding the bounds of the series itself.
While the impact of austerity measures in England has affected some of the Up series participants directly, including the cutbacks in education decried by school librarian Lynn or the diminished services that leads Jackie, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, to be denied disability benefits, the bigger impact will inevitably be felt on future generations. The films have also introduced the series participants’ children and grandchildren. Although Paul’s daughter, Katie, is the first in her family to go to college, most have reproduced their parents’ class backgrounds. In passing, we hear snippets about the contours of this changing world—that two-wage families are increasingly a necessity and that their kids are having to stay home longer and depend on their families more, including on grandparents for childcare. But to understand more, Up’s story of class must inevitably continue with them, exceeding the bounds of the series itself.
Thus this two-fold experiment, despite its already epic scope, is, by nature, an ongoing and unfinished one. As a longitudinal study of individuals across the life cycle, the Up series offers a portrait of aging that will continue to accrue meaning with the passage of time. As Nick says, “It isn’t a picture really of the essence of [individuals like] Nick or Suzy. It’s a picture of everyone. It’s how a person, any person, how they change … And that’s its value.” At the same time, the series remains a compelling experiment in understanding the power of social class, even as its depiction of what class has meant for a single generation at particular historical moments also forces us to wonder about its impact on subsequent generations.
Although the Up series, with its in-depth focus on individuals, is unable to show the larger picture of how and why capitalism itself has mutated in recent decades, its smaller, more human, insights are no less profound. It suggests that in order to understand how class works in our lives, we need a more subtle understanding of what class is: a process of coming into unequal relationship with each other that has social and cultural as well as economic dimensions; a process that, in sometimes unpredictable fashion, combines with other aspects of our identity and social positioning as well as our need to impose meaning on the world. That class is necessarily a conversation as well as a relationship becomes apparent in Apted’s ongoing negotiations with his participants, and, perhaps, in our relationship as viewers with the participants as well. The takeaway from this social-class experiment on film? We cannot be reduced to our class positioning any more than we can escape its influence.