2 July, 2012Issue 19.6Film & TVPolitics & Society

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Grand Narratives

Rosie Lavan

British 56 Up
Broadcast 14, 21 and 28 May 2012






“56 Up” was 49 years in the making. The three-part documentary shown on ITV1 in May was the most recent instalment of “Seven Up!”, a programme prepared in haste in 1963 and broadcast in 1964. Made for Granada’s “World in Action” current affairs series, “Seven Up!” profiled 14 seven-year-olds from very different backgrounds to investigate how far class continued to determine life chances in a Britain now running on the new energy of the 1960s. It was intended as a one-off, but Michael Apted—then the Granada researcher who first assembled the group, now a Hollywood director—has returned to interview them every seven years since. Told through television, that pre-eminent post-war medium, the “Up” films have become, accidentally but inevitably, an informal history of post-war society. “56 Up” remained true to form.

Viewers who encountered this long-running project for the first time this year will have found “56 Up” to be a documentary whose strength grows from the sum of its past parts and their integration with the present-day interviews. Each participant’s story is revisited and updated in relation to the footage of their younger selves. The great appeal of the programmes lies in being able to identify the continuities and contrasts, to paraphrase Joyce’s Bloom, between them and them now. There is Jackie, for example: newlywed at 21 and vowing never to have children; surrounded by her three small sons at 42; and now, at 56, holding her first grandchild. Similarly, the seven-year-old Bruce’s memorable wish—”my heart’s desire is to see my daddy”—informs his present concern, at 56, to do the best by his own two sons. We can tell the times by Sue’s hairstyles. Debbie, Tony’s wife, could never have known in 1984 how funny she would sound today explaining how they met “at a discotheque”.

Apted claims that the “Up” project was groundbreaking. He is right and the project remains so. In part this is because of the watching public’s enduring interest in the participants, which is remarkable in itself. Somehow, these programmes have been proofed against shifts in viewers’ patience, taste, and habits. Like the earlier programmes, the format of “56 Up” was a simple combination of interviews with shots of the participants at home, at work, and with their friends and families. This simplicity was refreshing, demonstrating an intuitive understanding of an increasingly old-fashioned linear medium. “Seven Up!” was a product of the television age; “56 Up” remembered its origins, proving that there are certain stories which television tells best.

In “56 Up”, these individual stories were often unremarkable, covering such familiar topics as marriage, children, illness, jobs, and ageing. But Apted’s questions, which seemed at times mundane, banal, or even rude, were astutely pitched, prompting answers in which larger narratives started to unwind. Lynn, who worked as a children’s librarian in Bethnal Green until she was made redundant shortly after “49 Up”, described how government cuts have affected her family and her consequent lack of faith in politicians. Jackie, who has not worked for years due to arthritis, described herself suffering from changes to disability benefits. John, a barrister, spoke only half-jokingly of his sense of personal failure now that two of his oldest friends are in the Cabinet. Tony, a cab driver, argued that “not one East Ender [… or] Cockney person like myself ever had a say in immigration”, before rebutting Apted’s charge that he sounded racist. Apted tends to address these wider issues as they arise in conversation, and it is perhaps for this reason that the end of the interview with Tony seemed a bit too glib. He was filmed, full of an East End pride which was slightly complicated for the viewer by his above remarks, in the Olympic stadium, built on the site of the Hackney dog track where he spent much of his youth.

The socio-political pitch which brought “Seven Up!” to the screen in 1964 was a modish one. The early decades of the Welfare State were characterised by a heightened sense of social self-consciousness which found expression in many different ways: in Pelican sociology books like Family and Kinship in East London (1957); in the Kitchen Sink realism of Shelagh Delaney, John Bratby, Alan Sillitoe, and others; on television, in Coronation Street or Ken Loach’s Wednesday Plays for the BBC, including Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966); and in the democratic will which ended 13 years of Conservative government and put Harold Wilson’s Labour Party in power in October 1964, five months after “Seven Up!” was screened. Social change at this time was increasingly defined and understood through popular culture, as it still is today. BBC Four’s recent documentary The Grammar School: A Secret History used a clip of the Beatles singing “Twist and Shout” as neat televisual shorthand for the egalitarian optimism of the early 1960s which, it explained, informed the Wilson Government’s introduction of comprehensive education.

This is the context in which Apted went out to find 14 children to fill a one-hour slot on Granada. He went to working-class districts of the East End, where bombsites were still playgrounds, and found Jackie, Lynn, Sue, and Tony. At prep school in Kent he found Andrew, Charles, and John; Bruce was a boarder in Hampshire; Suzy lived in a flat overlooking Hyde Park. Paul and Symon came from the same Middlesex children’s home; Neil and Peter from the same Liverpool suburb; Nick from a farm in the Yorkshire Dales. With the deterministic Jesuit maxim in mind—”give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”—the programme proposed that among these children the “executives and shop stewards of the future” could be found.

Problems with this social sample have been repeatedly pointed out by Apted and the “Up” participants, among others. Most of the children were either from very poor backgrounds or very rich ones; all of them in this “glimpse of Britain’s future”, to quote the Oliver Postgate-esque voiceover, were from England; only four were girls. Apted’s excuse on this latter point, made at the time of “42 Up” in 1996, that “if you were going to predict in 1964 who would be the trade-union leaders and politicians of the future, you wouldn’t have picked a woman”, is less than satisfactory—Barbara Castle might have persuaded him to reconsider. What is more disappointing is Apted’s own disappointment that all four women “took the family route”, as if the lives that they have led are of limited interest because they can be cast as conventional. The programmes have shown, every seven years, that this is not the case.

In a sense, though, these 50-year-old problems are beside the point: they arose because “Seven Up!” was conceived with the inbuilt obsolescence that defines current affairs programming. Nobody expected it to be the first chapter in a popular chronicle that would run for decades, and it is perhaps because of the haste and naivety of its beginnings that it remains such an effective social commentary. As “56 Up” has shown most recently, these documentaries are completely unassuming. “Seven Up!” is perhaps the only one of the programmes which sought to comment on the grand narratives of society; from “14 Up” onwards, the focus has been on the smaller stories of the participants and their lives. They have become familiar to millions, and the “Up” programmes now belong to that popular culture through which generations can define themselves.

That sense of the shared ownership of the “Seven Up!” stories has met with some resistance among the progammes’ participants. It was a shrewd move on Apted’s part to allow this resistance to become a theme of “56 Up”. Neil, now a Liberal Democrat councillor in Scotland, expressed this most strongly. He spent much of his young adult life untethered and isolated from social structures: he was living in a squat at 21 and homeless at 28. He has also suffered from depression. In “56 Up”, he described his discomfort with the responses he has received from people as a result of appearing on the programmes:

For so many millions of people, I’m here wearing my heart on my sleeve and they think they know everything about me. There were countless people writing to me saying “I know exactly how you feel”, and actually from those letters I would say none of them, not a single one of them, knew how I was feeling.

Neil is a writer, and though his writing has never been published, he hoped that one good thing which might have come from his taking part in the programmes would be some interest in his work. So far, this has not been the case. In this respect, the juxtaposition of Neil’s interview with that of his school friend Peter, who has not participated since “28 Up” but resumed with “56 Up” in order to promote his band, was particularly unfortunate.

We know the participants for what they were chosen to represent as children and for what they seem to have become in the snippets of their lives that have been televised. It was a gift to the programme-makers that seven-year-old Andrew’s declaration—”I read the Financial Times“—was so socially legible, and it was used to preface his interview in “56 Up”. Nick and Suzy were interviewed together. When asked at 14 what she thought about the programme Suzy had said: “I just think it’s ridiculous. I just don’t see any point in doing it.” In “56 Up”, Nick asked her: “Why is it that we are so annoyed about this programme?” They shared a frustration with its limits and an impatience with the images of themselves that emerge in each instalment. Nick continued: “I think I’d like to say this and I’d like to say that, and then they film me doing all this daft stuff and it goes on […] every seven years, it’s […] almost Biblical […] and then they present this tiny little snippet, and it’s like, ‘that’s all there is to me?’”

It would feel like another act of appropriation to contradict Nick in this; having participated in every programme since 1964, he perhaps knows best. The thing to offer instead is reassurance: that’s not all there is to any of them. The most moving moments of the programmes are the ones that Apted cannot have planned for and which wisely have not been edited out: Lynn, dead serious at 21, talking in her weary, underimpressed London woman’s tones about her recent marriage—”you do think, ‘Christ what have I done'”—or Jackie, joking at 56 when asked what she is looking for in a man: “a pulse would be nice.” Or during the vows at Bruce’s wedding, filmed for “42 Up”, the camera catches Penny, the bride, catching Bruce’s eye and raising her eyebrows, as if to challenge him and say “well, this is it”. Or Symon’s slightly bashful smirk in “28 Up” when he said that since 21 he had got married and had “a couple of kids”—in fact he had had five. Sometimes such moments arise in the juxtaposition of clips from interviews at different stages. Aged seven and in the children’s home, Paul spoke with a London accent: when “14 Up” was made he had emigrated to Melbourne with his father and, in a rapid adaption to his new environment, had already acquired an Australian accent.

Despite the fact that the “World in Action” team asked small children about big things in “Seven Up!”, like love and money and families and the future, those original interviews are charming without seeming saccharine. Similarly, the clips from the seven prior films that were used in “56 Up” were presented without nostalgia. It is remarkable that a documentary that was predicated on 49 years’ worth of backward glances should have avoided such sentimentality. The participants in “56 Up” were eloquent, patient, candid, and brave—but they were also private. Nick remarked that the programmes cannot show the “essence” of the participants; what comes across instead, he thought, was an everyman, a somebody. In representing something to and for the viewers, the participants remain, or retain, themselves. A short clip of the seven-year-olds at London Zoo, which was used before and after each commercial break in “56 Up”, illustrates this best. In the slowed-down, black-and-white film we see a few of them in profile; suddenly together their faces lift in milk-teeth smiles of joy, but we, the viewers, do not know what they have seen, because it is them that we have been watching.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.