Damn you, Michael Apted, for your Seven Up series, the documentary equivalent of the proverbial book that simply can’t be put down until it’s finished. And curse you, Netflix, for being his enabler in this little exercise. I missed a lot of sleep last week.
I was rapt! Seven Up starts in1964 by interviewing 14 or so seven year olds about their lives, their opinions, and their thoughts regarding how they see themselves moving into the future. Then they follow up by re-filming / re-interviewing these same individuals — often asking them exactly the same questions — every seven years until, one presumes, they’re no longer available to be interviewed. The children, quite deliberately for the purposes of the documentary, were drawn from all walks of life: from working-class east-end London, to exclusive public (i.e. private) preparatory schools, to state foster homes, to the Yorkshire dales and the middle-class suburbs of Liverpool.
1964 Britain in black and white, to my untrained eye, doesn’t feel all that different from 1944 (i.e. wartime) Britain, which makes this first instalment (the only one not shot in colour) — and me, who was born only a couple of years later — feel really old. Like it-all-began-in-the-mists-of-history old. Still, the “cast” are like typical seven year olds everywhere. With missing or overlarge front teeth which haven’t quite settled down in their mouths yet, full of nervous energy — though a few are quieter and seem to have a innate sadness about them we can’t help but think will continue to evolve in the many films to come — vying to be heard over each other when interviewed in groups and generally saying whatever comes into their minds with little or no internal filter.
They’re fascinating to listen to and the producers even bring them all together for a day to “rub shoulders” in London where they get to visit the zoo, dance and share refreshments at an indoor party, and burn off some energy at an “adventure playground” (which bears a striking resemblance to a bombed out city lot which has simply yet to have been re-built). As this inaugural film closes, with the children swinging and climbing and playing in the rubble, we are told that we are glimpsing the future of Britain at the turn if the millennium. “Give me a child until he is seven,” the voice over intones, “and I will give you the man.” And in many ways, as the series bears out, this may not be far from the truth.
Indeed, throughout Seven Up we quickly get a clear sense of the foundation the director is trying build with this first offering. We watch, for example, as the three prep school boys inform us what newspapers they enjoy reading and then rhyme off all the remaining private schools it’s anticipated they will be attending prior to moving on to “Oxbridge” for their degrees. The scene then cuts from there to one of the in-care boys looking confusedly into the camera. “What’s university,” he asks, and though such an overt transition feels a little heavy handed, the crux of this experiment is now made manifest: How likely are any of us to ever escape the gravitational reality of the lives into which, quite by chance, we are born?
I first heard about this series last autumn when I caught a short snippet of an interview with Michael Apted about his most recent chapter, 56 Up, on NPR. I was fascinated by the existence of such a “longitudinal study,” as they call it, but I couldn’t help thinking about how the study itself might (must?) actually influence the trajectory of the very lives it was purporting to examine. How must it feel to know that every seven years there was going to be someone in your living room taking stock of how far you’ve come — or not — since the last episode? My mind boggled. The psychological ramifications of being in such a position, in terms of how you ended up living your life, were staggering. An ever-recurring Truman Show, but one where you actually knew people were watching you. Would you be constantly justifying yourself if things didn’t turned out as you had anticipated seven or 14 or 21 years ago? Would you end up working extra hard in your life — harder than you might have otherwise — simply because you felt you had to be successful because “others” were watching? The resultant behaviourally-generated combinations and permutations were endless.
And certainly, as the seven year olds grew further into adulthood, we saw intimations of this reflexive awareness coming through in the interviews. The fact that they knew their lives were being subtly — or maybe not so subtly — influenced by this seven-year cycle. Most couldn’t help but feel it as an intrusion, a time when they had to re-live old pains and issues in a way that the rest of us are lucky enough to be able to sweep it under the rug and forget about if we so desire. One of the participants refers to the whole exercise as a “poison pill” at one point, while another says he feels he actually might have tried harder in his life had he not been on the show because he was always afraid to take risks in case he failed at the things he wanted to try and was thus left with this failure exposed to the viewing public every time he had to go back on camera. Still, nearly all of the original participants have stuck with it for more than 50 years — and we should be hugely grateful for their sacrifice because this is a show that can help to teach us about understanding the trajectories of our own lives in amazing ways.
Like most “writer types” I’m probably far too introspective for my own good. I’m all about the narrative. And the most important narrative for anybody is, of course, their own life. That’s the story that really matters to us, The Most Amazing Show on Earth! But most of our sense of personal narrative seems based on post-rationalizations of one sort or another. Ultimately, our lives only make sense in retrospect (i.e. looking back over our shoulders), and we often draw causal-type associations — that may or may not actually be valid — to demonstrate that things have obviously unfolded in the only way they possibly ever could have given our circumstances. What a rich voyeuristic opportunity it is, then, to sit in safety and watch others struggle to uncover these same relationships for themselves every seven years. It certainly appears that we’re all — rich or poor, young or old, black, brown or white — just trying to make sense of this whole “life thing”, from moment to moment, year to year, as we move through it. And to finally, as E.M. Forester has suggested, “Only connect.”
This is true “Realty TV”. Give it a watch. And let me know what you think.