The Seven-Year Switch: Documentary Portraits of Growing Up in Public


In 1963, the year that British rock began to transform the image of London from staid to swinging, Granada TV produced 7Up, one of the most visionary series in the history of television-a medium that is serial by definition. The goal was to offer a glimpse of what Britain would be like, particularly in respect to the class system, in the then almost unimaginable year 2000 and beyond. The method was to make documentary portraits of 14 seven-year-olds and to film follow-ups every seven years. Michael Apted, the eclectic director whose James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough opens this week, was a researcher on 7 Up and has been at the helm ever since.

As the series and its participants grow older, the flashback material in the films has become at once more cumbersome and more fascinating. Like its subjects, 42 Up is a bit slower and heavier, but its connection of past and present yields more subtle character twists and contradictions than ever before. Apted is very good at zeroing in on the expression of fears and desires that shape lives, albeit in unexpected ways. There’s nothing in 42 Up as outrageous and naively revealing as the three upper-class boys in7 Up claiming that it’s essential for their school to charge tuition because if it didn’t “the poor people would come rushing in.” But there’s an enormous pleasure in discovering that Jackie (one of the three working-class girls), who at age seven was sure she wanted to become a mother-and who by age 35 had not only ended her long, intentionally childless marriage but also had had her first child as the result of a brief affair-now has three kids and is keeping her family together thanks in part to her
loyal, second ex-mother-in-law.

Of the original 14 subjects, three have dropped out of the film (one dropout heads a documentary unit at Channel 4), but happily no one has died and no one’s children have met with any catastrophes. There have been a fair number of divorces and almost everyone has lost one or both parents. The original choice of subjects now seems wildly revealing of the biases of the times. Only four were girls and only two were from what Thatcherism would come to define as the middle class. The other 12 were divided equally between the upper and lower classes.

If you’ve followed the series, you undoubtedly have worried about Neil, the endearing child who wanted to be an astronaut and who in adolescence was plagued with terrible feelings of inadequacy that made him borderline dysfunctional. In 35 Up, Neil was living reclusively in the Shetland islands. He suspected that by the next film he would be homeless in London. Neil is back in the city, but what he’s doing is so surprising (and yet so right in terms of the person we’ve come to know) that you’ll have to see it to get the full impact. What’s happened to Neil is in part due to the support of one of the other subjects-Bruce, the math teacher, who, incidentally, finally got married. Neil and Bruce struck up a lasting friendship at the cast party for 35 Up. The 7Up series is thus one of the rare documentaries to have had a positive practical effect on the life of at least one of its subjects.