Saturday, August 19, 2006

Seven Up, again

[Movie Review] As the opening credits of 49 Up rolled, it suddenly occurred to me that I have been coming to these documentaries for 21 years. 28 Up was the first one I saw in 'real time' having watched 7, 14 (or 7+7) and 21 Up on television before. Then dutifully, in seven year intervals I have come again and again. And through it all, my life has changed. I saw 28 Up with my parents, 35 Up with friends, 42 Up with my spouse and 49 Up with the mother of my children (the last two the same person, although in an Up way). I expect that I will see 56 Up with one or more of my children and then who knows after that.

So why do I (and millions of others) keeping coming back to see what happened to those 14 children every 7 years? Let's first dismiss the obvious: because something interesting has happened to these people. For at least the last two installments, nothing interesting has happened. Basically, in 49 Up, people get older, many have grandchildren now and a surprising number have holiday houses. But they are in the same job with or without much the same partners and haven't had any dramatic shifts in life fortunes. In 42 Up, it was much the same.

Previously, in 35 Up, the draw was to see whether the more dramatic changes between 21 and 28 had continued. 21 Up was foreboding for many but then major swings happened by 28. Suzy who was lost at 21 was back on track as married with children by 28. Nick, the son of a Yorkshire farmer, was getting his PhD in Oxford at 21 and then, by 28, had gone as far away from Yorkshire as could be imagined (to the University of Wisconsin, Madison as an assistant professor in electrical engineering). But it was Neil who was compelling. A happy child at 7, by 21 he has falling off the rails and in poverty. At 28, he was homeless. Whereas Nick had escaped class lines, Neil had fallen through them. For the rest of the 14 children, their lives changed, by English class lines gave them their life fortunes. By 49 Up, they are on the same track as we saw at 35. If looking for life changes, was the pull, it is no longer the case.

Perhaps what is most interesting is seeing how these folks deal with being in the public eye. These days they are noticeable in their resentment; particularly, of the documentary-maker, Michael Apted. However, one is left with the impression that they protest too much. It was hard to be convinced that reliving their lives every 7 years was really all that bad. But as John (whose quotes as a 7 year old were such a highlight) the whole exercise has more in common with reality television than a serious study. For that reason, two of the original 14 have dropped out. Most interestingly, Charles hasn't been on the program since 21 and he went on to become a BBC documentary film-maker!

In actuality, and I know this sounds like a cliche, but watching this again and again for essentially the same thing is about us rather than them. Every time we come back we are seven years older and have moved another stage. I look at them as how I am now and how I will be in a decade. The thoughts that go through your mind are focussed on yourself. And this gives us a discipline to spend a couple of hours every 7 years thinking about that.

Nonetheless, all this has inspired me to do a '7 Up' style interview with my children at the same ages. Now I just need to go find the seven year old and explain to her why she will have to put on a school uniform on a Sunday and tell me who she is going to marry.