March 5, 2024


International Student Club UK

Michael Apted’s Up, a Decades-Long Film on Britain’s Class System

The Up series of TV films — the first of which was aired in May 1964, with the most recent coming fifty-five years later in June 2019 — is certainly the longest-running documentary series of all time. Yet it was only by chance that it came to be. The first episode, made up of interviews with fourteen seven-year-old children from across British society about their lives and future prospects, was intended as a single stand-alone episode for the current affairs show World in Action. Broadcast on the recently launched Granada Television, the Manchester-based alternative to Britain’s BBC, the first part was titled Seven Up!, and its aim was didactic, if not polemical. By asking the children a series of fairly leading questions about their understanding of class, society, the lives of those around them, religion, and culture, it was intended as an indictment of Britain’s class-stratified society. In director Michael Apted’s words, it would tell “the truth of the class system out of the mouths of babes.”

Apted’s initial involvement was as a researcher for the Canadian director, Paul Almond. For three frantic weeks, Apted, a recent Cambridge graduate, searched the country for “representative” seven-year-olds, all of whom were to be both confident in front of the camera and somehow a stand-in for an entire social group. The result was a huge television event. Watching it again now, over half a century later, it’s not difficult to see why. Of those fourteen children, we have cheeky-chappy East End lad Tony, racing around the schoolyard, mimicking the accent of the posh boys, playing up in the classroom. There’s bashful Nick, a farmer’s son in the Yorkshire Dales; Neil and Peter, bright-eyed and engaging children from a middle-class Liverpool suburb; Lynn, Jackie, and Sue, three sharp and funny working-class girls from East London; and, perhaps most notoriously, Andrew, John, and Charles, prep-school boys who already at age seven brag about reading the Financial Times for stock tips, and whose future — “I’m going to Charterhouse,” Andrew says, “and after that Trinity Hall, Cambridge” — is already certain.

Up started as a social experiment to portray Britain’s postwar class rigidities — and, in the words of the voice-over, to find “the shop steward and the executive of the year 2000.” Yet it turned into a stunning portrait of not only five decades of social and cultural change, but also the lives of fourteen people who each, in their own way, become intimate companions, opening their lives up to us once every seven years.

If anyone is to thank for the show’s continuing success over the decades, it is director Michael Apted, who died this January 7 at age seventy-nine. Apted was the product of Britain’s burgeoning postwar middle class, having grown up the son of a surveyor for an insurance company in Ilford, a suburb to the east of London, he attended a prestigious school in the City and later studied both history and law at Cambridge. It was here, Apted says, that his consciousness of the class system grew, flowing from a “romantic liberal idea of equal opportunity.” What this produced was an idea of fairness, that “If people show gifts at an early age, that should be encouraged. And it’s so wasteful when it isn’t or when people just don’t get an opportunity.”

Director Michael Apted with documentary subjects Jackie, Lynn, and Susan. (Granada Television)

This romantic ideal of opportunity, whether pursued or crushed, is the guiding thread of each of the Up films. Five years after the initial program aired, Denis Forman, director of Granada Television, approached Apted in the studio canteen while he was directing episodes of the social-realist soap opera Coronation Street and asked if, with the seventh anniversary of the show approaching, he’d want to do a follow-up film with the same children now that they were fourteen. That lead to 7 Plus Seven, and, eventually, a new show every seven years since.

Like many of the generation of British directors who came to prominence during the 1960s and ’70s, Apted first made his name working in TV before making the move across to the big screen. And, just like those other representatives of Britain’s new cinema — Ken Russell, Ken Loach, and Stephen Frears (a contemporary at Cambridge) — Apted’s work, even in Hollywood, continued to be guided by his social and political conscience. After the Up films, his big break came with the release of the 1980 biopic of the country music singer Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter, which saw Sissy Spacek win an Oscar for Best Actress. Following this, he gained further acclaim for Gorillas in the Mist (1988), starring Sigourney Weaver as the conservationist Dian Fossey, as well as commercial success with Gorky Park (1983), and the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough (1999). But still, every seven years, Apted would drop his work and return to discuss, with us, the lives of fourteen ordinary British men and women.

The question of how we narrate a life has always been fraught. The portrayal of the bare facts of social existence seems, necessarily, to move us away from the real flesh-and-blood person. How, then, do we define character — those fundamentally human aspects of a person — while also investigating the broader elements of class and social life that determines it? The French memoirist Annie Ernaux, writing about her father — in many ways a typical working-class man from the north of France — pushes on this contradiction. If, she says, she tries to remember him as he was, “his way of laughing and walking, taking me to the funfair . . . I forget everything that ties him to his social class.” Yet, by ignoring precisely those elements of him, “I am gradually moving away from the figure of my father.”

In 56 Up, Nick, who we have seen grow from the precocious farmer’s son trudging through the Yorkshire Dales via boarding school and Oxford to a physics professorship in Wisconsin, rubs up against this contradiction. If the initial aim of the show was to see how class determines outcome, then the human aspects of life become occluded. Or, as Nick says, the show does not give “a picture really of the essence of Nick.” Instead, what we see is “a picture of Everyman. It’s how a person, any person, how they change.”

Through the series, Apted himself became increasingly aware of this. From 28 Up onward, rather than provide thematic sequences of interviewing — on love, say, with each person in turn reflecting on its meaning and their hopes for love now or in the future — each segment focuses on a single person, their narrative and development. Partly, this was a product of the increasing need to show lengthy recap sections, a montage of a person’s development bringing the previous films up to date. But it also reflects a change in attitude on the part of not only the filmmaker but also the interviewees.

In 21 Up, we see Jackie, who in 1964 was an engaging and funny seven-year-old from working-class East London, become angry at Apted’s questioning of her relationships, asking her whether she’s experienced enough to marry. She chafes at the rigidities and presumption of his inquiries, and constantly pushes back against her perceived lack of intelligence or ambition. Jackie married young, at nineteen, and soon after moved into a council house with her husband. At twenty-one, we see her anger at Apted’s questioning, not only forcing him to turn the cameras off, but sitting in near silence throughout the rest of the interview with her two schoolmates Lynn and Sue. Revisiting this episode nearly thirty years later for 49 Up, and again for 63 Up, we see her fierce intelligence and strong will. At forty-nine, she questions the class biases of Apted’s questions — “You wouldn’t have asked some of the other people on this program that question” — and later their gendered aspect:

I kept asking myself, “Why’s he asking me questions about marriage and men? Why’s he not asking me questions about how the country is?” . . . When we started at seven . . . there weren’t many career women. But when we hit twenty-one, I really thought you’d have had a better idea of how the world works, shall I say. But you still asked us the most mundane, domestic questions.

Jackie had perhaps the hardest life of all of those we follow. After the early breakdown of her marriage, she becomes a single parent to three boys and moves to a council flat in Scotland. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, she spends decades on disability benefits until, at age fifty-six, under the changes to the benefit system brought in under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, she’s pronounced “fit to work.” Where, she asks, can she even do a full day’s work when her hands are crippled with arthritis? We also see the tragic death of her ex-partner Ian, with whom she co-parents, in a car accident. And yet, through it all, she remains the most astute, sensitive interviewee of the fourteen.

Against the impersonal, anthropological gaze of the early editions, the politics of the later years became subtler, often drawn from oblique, personal narratives. Through Symon, we see the changing nature of working-class employment. In 1964, he’s a shy mixed-race child living in a children’s home run by the charity Barnado’s. He leaves school young and goes to work in the freezer room of the Wall’s sausage factory. At twenty-one, he says he couldn’t work there much longer as his “mind would go dead,” yet seven years later, he’s still there and seemingly resigned to doing this job for life (“better the devil you know, innit?”). By thirty-five, the warehouse has closed down, and he later moves into a job as a forklift truck driver handling goods coming in and out of Gatwick Airport. The effects of deindustrialization, and the offshoring of industry, run throughout.

Stephen Lambert, one of the show’s producers, said after 42 Up that the program was “not as rigidly focused on class any more, but that’s because the class system itself is not as rigid.” Perhaps the old markers of class have softened, but the story told throughout the series belies this confident pronouncement. Of the original fourteen subjects, three came from a posh prep school in Kensington; one from a colonial-military background who was studying at a disciplinary boarding school; two from rural England, one a farmer’s son from the Yorkshire Dales and a daughter of a wealthy landowner in Scotland; four were working-class kids from London’s East End, three girls and a boy; two middle-class boys from a Liverpool suburb; and two boys from a London children’s home.

Jackie, Lynn, and Susan — pictured here at age seven — in Seven Up! (Granada Television)

At sixty-three, most of their lives have, bar a few wobbles, turned out as expected. John, one of the prep school boys who, as a fourteen-year-old at the prestigious Westminster boarding school, calls himself a “reactionary” is, by the end, a highly respected barrister and member of the queen’s council — although he never got the parliamentary seat he always desired. We also discover in 56 Up that two of his oldest friends were, by then, members of the cabinet in the Tory–Lib Dem coalition government. Suzy, the boarding-school girl, marries a wealthy solicitor and later property developer and becomes a housewife, and Nick goes from boarding school to Oxford (where he was in the same class as future prime minister Theresa May) and then a career in academia.

All of the participants seem to push against the rigid determinism of the show’s stated aim. Jackie, Lynn, and Sue, the three East End girls, emphasize how happy they have been, how their lives have been richer and more fulfilling than any could have expected. Only one gained any sort of professional success, yet their desire to not be shown as ideal types, as mere sociological examples of a particular background, questioned the definition of success that the show implicitly relied upon. From the other end of the class divide, many of the wealthy children fought hard against any notion that they had it easy. John refused involvement in several episodes of the series, only returning in 35 Up in order to advertise his charitable work in Bulgaria. Throughout, he is at pains to show that what got him to the top was not some “indestructable birthright,” but hard work and effort.

Only one noticeably slid down the social scale. Neil was one of the stars of the first edition in 1964, where he appeared as a funny and bright-eyed child, filled with hope and wonder at the world. When we see him again at fourteen, he has become an anxious teenager with red rings around his tired-looking eyes. It looked as though he was carrying the weight of the world, and its expectations, on his shoulders. By twenty-eight, it took researchers three months to locate him living in a caravan in North Wales. In 28 Up, we see a homeless Neil on the coast of Scotland, on the dole and visibly suffering from mental ill-health, rocking back and forth as he answers Apted’s questions. He does, eventually, gain a small amount of, if not success, then acceptance. Later in life, he becomes a Lib Dem councilor, first in Hackney and then in Cumbria, in England’s North West corner, yet throughout, he lives a hand-to-mouth existence on benefits, until an inheritance allows him to buy a small farmhouse in France.

By the final instalment, 63 Up, released in 2019, most are nearing retirement age. Many, even those from the working class, have found some stability in life. Yet almost all discuss their worries for the life that their own children might have. One notable success is Tony — the cheeky Cockney who leaves school young and briefly lives his dream of becoming a jockey, before working as a London taxi driver. His work allows him to move out of the East End and into Essex, eventually owning his own home and even allowing him to buy a holiday home in Spain. But changes to the economy, and to British society, hit him hard. After the 2008 financial crisis scuppers his business plans, he is left in some financial difficulties. His movement up in the world was funded by access to easy credit, and with its removal after the crash, he was forced to sell his Spanish property. Back in London, the arrival of Uber has undercut the London taxi trade, cutting his income by a third. Each of his three children left school young, one becoming a taxi driver like his parents and a second a teaching assistant at a school. Of the third, little is mentioned after 42 Up, other than the fact that she has had difficult relationships. By 63 Up, her daughter is living full time with Tony and his wife, Debbie, with Tony getting visibly emotional when discussing her problems and the scars it has left behind.

All of this leaves him questioning some of his political certainties. Something of an archetypical working-class Tory, he voted for Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Yet by 2019, Tony is disillusioned with the Conservatives and says, surprisingly, that he is considering voting for the Green Party at the next election. The issue of Brexit is brought up in many of the interviews in 63 Up. John, surprisingly or not, is a reluctant Remainer; Neil and Peter passionately so. But compared with the issues of class and inequality that run throughout the fifty-year series, the later question of Europe seems forced, lacking the weight of other schisms. Lynn, another of the East End girls, became a children’s librarian before her tragic early death, and spent a large part of her life fighting against the destruction of children’s services under the aegis of Britain’s crippling austerity regime. Jackie retains a firm commitment to the ideals of the Left and faces her own struggle against cuts to the benefit system.

There are, of course, criticisms to be made of the series. Of the original fourteen subjects, only one, Symon, is not white, and there are only four women. This was not only a problem of timing — Apted had only three weeks to find children to interview — but also of the constraints of the show’s original vision. Apted also expressed regret that the majority of the children were taken from the extremes of the social spectrum, with only two coming from the middle class. And yet, the show remains not only an enduring landmark of contemporary documentary film, but also a thrilling and powerful survey of British society and culture in the last fifty years. It is only a shame that with Apted’s passing, a further installment may never be produced.