By Yolande Brener
The Up Series started in 1964 with a documentary examining the state of England’s class system as experienced by fourteen 7-year-olds. Researching “Seven Up” was director, Michael Apted’s first job, and he never imagined the series would still be going 49 years later, even having franchises of the project being made in Russia, America and South Africa. Apted’s numerous other films include Coal Miner’s Daughter, and most recently, Chasing Mavericks.
The Jesuit maxim which inspired the project says “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”
By this principle, the series is surprising. Upper class Suzy dropped out of school at age 16 and went to Paris to become a secretary, eventually focusing on family life more than career. Working class Sue went on to become an administrator at Queen Mary Law School, despite having been a single parent and never having attended university herself.
“For me that was a success story of 56,” said Apted. “And Sue’s done it with such grace and decency. She was modest about it. Amazing, how she could stand up in front of 600 people. She had no choice. She just could do it.”
“If there’s one thing I took away from this,” said Apted, “it’s don’t be judgmental. Don’t place my quality of life, my ambitions, or my value judgments on other people. They might seem to be more impoverished than I am, but maybe in some ways they’re not. Parts of my life have been a colossal failure, you know. I’ve had two failed marriages.”
Apted suggests that the choices we make in life are as much about our intrinsic nature as our environment.
“I found something I really wanted to do,” he said. “And if it meant going away for six months to do a movie and leaving behind my wife and two young children, I had no choice. I could riff on having a choice, but it wouldn’t be accurate.”
There were topics the participants didn’t want to speak about like childlessness and mental illness, but on the whole they seem to have become more open and comfortable with themselves over time.
“They’ve got everything, even what I never had: a father,” Symon said.
But by 35, Symon was divorced. He then had another son, adopted a stepdaughter and fostered several children with his second wife. The most surprising aspect of watching these lives develop over time was how content the participants appeared at 56, despite financial and other issues.
“I was ready for 56 to be depressing and a bit negative and whatever and I was worried about that,” said Apted. “But they seemed to be sort of at peace with their lives and the lives they’d created with their families.”