I Am Down With The Up Series

“Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” It’s impossible to talk about the Up series without beginning with this Jesuit maxim.

It was 1964, Cassius Clay was the heavyweight champion of boxing, Nikita Khrushchev was ousted from Soviet power, and a still wet-behind-the-ears Michael Apted (later, director of Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist, among others) interviewed fourteen 7-year-olds from England for a Granada Television documentary.

The premise was simple. The results were anything, but. Take fourteen children from all social backgrounds, visit them at the age of seven, and document their day-to-day lives, their current views, and the goals they and their families have for them.

Then, every seven years, Michael Apted and the documentary crew check in to see whether or not the children are still on the path that was outlined for them seven years prior, and whether or not their social background has any bearing on this journey.

Those seven-year-olds are now 49 years old and a number not only have children of their own, but grandchildren who are nearly the same age they were when the Up series began over forty years ago.

Via DVD, I was able to watch these children age nearly forty years in a span of two weeks. I felt like the Time Traveler in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. These children grew up right before my eyes. And on Tuesday, October 9th, the PBS series POV will air the latest reunion, with 49-Up.

Tony went from an un-focused seven-year-old who wanted to be a jockey, to an un-focused adult who tried and failed at being a jockey, became a cabbie, dabbled in acting, and struggled with being monogamous to his wife. In 49 Up, we not only learn Tony’s marriage has survived his infidelity, but that his family has moved yet again. Give me Tony until he is seven, and I will give you the man.

And then there’s John, whose life seemed to follow the “script.” As a seven-year-old, John was an upper class child in a pre-preparatory school who already read newspapers to track politics and revealed his goals of going not just to college, but to Oxford, in particular. In subsequent Up series installments, not only has John gone to Oxford, but he has had great success in being a litigator. Give me John until he is seven, and I will give you the man.

But perhaps, the most intriguing person each and every installment, is Neil. Neil has been the exception to the maxim. At the age of seven, Neil is a bubbly child full of excitement at the world. He exclaims that he wants to be an astronaut. By the age of fourteen, the smile has given way to a more serious exploration of life’s likelihoods. By 21 Up, Neil is working odd jobs and squatting in a flat. Within another seven years, Neil is homeless and wandering; living off the government. No longer the chipper child of seven, Neil struggles with depression, thoughts of suicide, and even worries that he may be too comfortable with the possibility that he is beginning to “go mad.” By 35 and 42 Up, Neil is still homeless, but a passion for politics has given him enough drive and hope, providing viewers with the first glimpse of the potential for turning things around by the time of 49 Up.

Over the years, some of the children have decided to bow out of an installment or two. But 49 Up brings us the biggest return of subjects, since the original. Tony, Bruce, Symon, Suzy, Neil, Paul, Sue, Jackie, John, Andrew, Nick, and Lynn have returned, with only Charles and Peter remaining absent.

Is class structure important, growing up in England? At the core, are you basically the same person at seven as you will be as an adult? Furthermore, is your life essentially decided by the time you turn seven? The seven installments of this series would, for the most part, answer yes to all.

The participants may argue otherwise, as John did in an earlier installment. In it, he claims the Up series makes it look like everything is predetermined. But, as he argues, it doesn’t show the sleepless nights spent studying and working, in order to make those 7-year-old dreams of Oxford University a reality.

You can decide for yourself which side of the fence you’re on when PBS airs 49 Up on Tuesday, October 9th.