Reality show tracks tangled lives of Sixties children

The ‘7 Up kids’ as they appeared in the third series, aged 21.

In 1964, a group of seven-year-olds appeared on a TV documentary called ‘7 Up’. Every seven years, the cameras returned. The eighth series of the show, called ‘56 Up’, began this week.

Back in 1964, 14 seven-year-olds were selected for a radical project. Four lived in the East End of London. Two were growing up in care. A handful studied at a posh prep school, and a few were plucked from England’s growing middle classes.

Each was to star in 7 Up – a unique documentary exploring the lives of very different children. Its inspiration was a Jesuit saying: ‘give me the child when he is seven, and I will give you the man.’ Producers wanted to know how a seven-year-old’s class and background would shape the adult they would become.

Now, the gap-toothed 7 Up children are 56 years old – and the show has revisited them every seven years. Have their lives turned out as expected?

The wrinkled, contented 56-year-olds certainly look very different to the children of 1964’s grainy footage. Tony, who dreamed of becoming a jockey at school, is a taxi driver. The laughing, cheeky Neil is an introspective 56-year-old, with a painful history of mental illness.

Many are surprised at their own achievements. East End schoolgirl Sue did not go to university: she married at 24, and at 42 was a single mum. Now, she runs courses at a London University, and regularly speaks in front of hundreds of students.

Neil has experienced even bigger twists. As a 14-year-old, he hoped to go to Oxford University. Fourteen years later he was homeless, and living in the wilds of Scotland. Then, he imagined he would be facing the same poverty in his forties. But seven years on, he became a councillor in London.

Sometimes, even director Michael Apted makes wrong assumptions about his subjects. By 21 Up, he confesses, he had marked Tony as destined for jail. In a long sequence, he even showed him touring London’s criminal hotspots. Now, however, the middle-aged cabbie is happily married, with a clean record.

These negative assumptions mean continuing with the series is no easy ride. Many participants say their private life is no place for TV cameras. And as they grow older, Apted says, persuading the subjects to take part is still a struggle.

The Kids are alright?

Can we see the adult a child of seven will become? Many think these stories show that life’s course is not decided at such an early age. Some of the poorest children in 7 Up are now doing very well. And some of the richest have not been so lucky.

Others are not so sure. They think the things that shape the direction of someone’s life – personality, education, intelligence – are in place at an early age. Though some have made surprising turns, the 56-year-olds can clearly be seen in their seven-year-old selves.

You Decide

  1. When meeting a seven-year-old child, can you work out how they will turn out as an adult?
  2. What do you think is the most important factor in influencing how your life will turn out?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are directing a modern7 Up. What groups would you need to represent to get a good overview of the British population?
  2. How would someone have predicted your life going if they had met you at seven years old? Create a table comparing predictions and reality.

Some People Say...

“I would never let a TV crew film my life.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is there a modern equivalent of7 Up?
Sort of. The BBC created a spin-off documentary called7 Up 2000, which documents the lives of more contemporary children. It was revisited in 2007, when the children were 14.
How is it different?
The children involved come from very different backgrounds – both to each other, and those of 1964. Then, the slice of Britain7 Up represented was almost entirely white, and predominantly male – reflecting, perhaps, the tendency for men to go on to work, and women to stay in the home. Filmmakers also focused on the very rich and very poor – missing out the middle classes, which have grown in size and influence since the 1960s.

Word Watch

East End
The East End includes areas of London around Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney. A melting-pot of different cultures and ethnicities, it has long had a reputation for poverty and crime. Now, it is hoped that the Olympics will bring greater wealth to the area.
Jesuit
Jesuits are members of a Christian order that follows the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The group is particularly committed to spreading religious teachings, and has been especially active in setting up schools, colleges and universities.
Class
Social class refers to the classification of society into different groups – but it is notoriously difficult to define exactly what these groups are. Often, they are defined by wealth and income. But other factors, including levels of education and social values, also come into play.

Subjects

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