Thursday, 25 May 2017

691 28 Up, 42 Up , 49 Up and 56 Up

First  viewed : 20  November  1984

I  first  caught  this  monumental  series  in  its  fourth  incarnation  on  a  Tuesday  night. The  Littleborough  Civic  Trust  Footpaths  Group  had  held  its  quarterly  meeting  to  decide  the  forthcoming  walks  programme  that  evening  and  I  had  informally  chaired  it. I  never  had  the  title  of  Footpaths  Secretary,  because  my  colleagues  wanted  to  make  sure  the  last  person  to  hold  the  post  never  had  a  job  to  come  back  to  after  his  sudden  resignation  in  the  summer  of  1982,  but  effectively  I  did  the  job  for  the  next  fifteen  years. And  it  had  one great  benefit, it  meant  the  idea  of  trying  to  revive  the  Littleborough  Rambling  Club  in  its  public  form   never  crossed  my  mind.

Anyway  by  the  time  the  meeting  finished  it  was  too  late  to  go  back  to  Leeds. There  was  still  a  train  but  my  hall  of  residence  was  four  miles  out  of  the  city  centre  and  the  last  bus   left  long  before  the  train  would  have  got  into  Leeds. So  I   stayed  over  and  came  home  to  find  my  mum  watching  this.

The  series  is  another  great  legacy  from  the  golden  days  of  Granada  TV. The   first  programme  Seven  Up  was  the  brainchild  of  a  Canadian  ex-pat  director  Paul Almond   who  had the idea  of  taking  a  disparate group  of  children  of  the  same  age , interviewing  them  and  seeing  how  their  social  background  shaped  their  expectations  for  the  future   at  the  age  of  seven. A  young  researcher  on  the  programme, Michael  Apted  helped  select  them. From  a  pool  of  20, 14  were  selected.  It  was  not  originally  intended  to  catch  up  with  them  at  seven  year  intervals  and Almond  had  no  involvement  in  the  subsequent  series. From  7  Plus  Seven  onwards, the  series  has  been  Apted's  baby  and  has  remained  so  despite  his  success  as  a  Hollywood  film  director and  advancing  years. I  had  absolutely  no  knowledge  of  the  project  until  my  mother  filled  me  in  that  night.

I  was  only  half-interested  at  the  time  not  quite  buying  into  the  concept  of   lengthy  interviews  with  "ordinary"  people. Except  that  one  of  them  wasn't  the  least  bit  ordinary  and  his  segment  was  really  the  only  part  that  stuck  with  me. Neil  Hughes  is  the  undoubted  star  of  the  series  and  his  sections  are  always  the  most  compelling, a  study  in lost  opportunity  , mental  disintegration and  restored  equilibrium. Neil  was  the  star  of  the  original  Seven  Up , a  bright-eyed, confident   boy  with  a  winning  smile  who  wanted  to  be  an  astronaut. Even  at  fourteen  though, you  can  see  the shadows  approaching  in  his  rather  sombre  demeanour. At  21  he's  an  angry  young  man  living  in  a  squat  having  dropped  out  of   Aberdeen  University  after  less  than  a  term, still  bitter  at  his  rejection  by  Oxford   and  verbally  lacerating  his  parents  for  not  properly  preparing  him  for  the  world.  When  28  Up  came  round , it  took  Apted's  team  months  to  even  find  him  as  he  was  hitch-hiking  across  the  UK  moving  between casual  jobs  and  they  eventually  found  him  in  a  caravan  in  the  Scottish  Highlands.The  anger  had  subsided but  he  was  clearly  suffering  from  mental  health  problems. The  series  has  never  delved  too  deeply  into  his  medical  issues - some  things  should  be  kept  private  after  all - but  Neil  did  let  slip  that  he'd  suffered  from  a  nervous  complaint  since  he  was  16  and  that  was  the  primary  reason  he'd  dropped  out  of  university.  That  may  well  be  so  but  you  also  get  the  impression  that  Neil  is  just  too  sensitive  a  soul  to  survive  out   there, his  obvious  intelligence  more  of  a  handicap  than  a  help.  

Neil  mentioned  his  own  castles  in  the  air ,  a  university  lecturer  on  subjects  of  his  own  choosing  or  a theatre  director  during  that  interview  and  in  a  small  way  he'd  achieved  the  latter  ambition  by  35  Up , a  small  crumb  of  comfort  in  a  segment  that  is  Gothic  in  its  bleakness. That  series  passed  me  by  at  the  time  but  even  watching  it  with  the  benefit  of  hindsight,  it's  still  devastating. Neil  is  now  on  the edge  of  the  UK, living  on  social  security  in  the  Shetland  Islands, physically  decaying  and  seemingly at  the  end  of   his  mental  tether  having  been  ditched  as  director  of  the  local  pantomime  after  one  year. The  scene  of  Neil  hammering  away  at  his  typewriter  because, as  he  says , having  put  so  much  effort  in  he  can't  believe  the  results  can  be  useless. is  personally  unbearable. I  think  you  can  probably  work  out  why.

But - there  are  good  people  and   happy  endings  in  life  as  42  Up  showed  - on  the  BBC  for  the  first  and  only  time  to  date . This  time  ( 1998 )  I  was  fully  interested  partly  because  I  was  short  of  disposable  income  and  more  reliant  on  the  TV  for  entertainment. At  33  I was  also  becoming  a  bit  more  interested  in  the  concept  of  the  passage  of  time. This  revealed  that  following  35  Up, another  participant  chubby  teacher  Bruce  Balden  had  invited  Neil  to   stay  with  him  in  London  while  he  got  his  life  back  on  track. This  seemed  like  a  formidable  gamble but  Neil  repaid  his  faith , did  an  Open  University  degree  and  found  solace  in  becoming  a  lay  preacher  and  Liberal  Democrat  councillor,  first  in  Hackney  then  in  the  Lake  District.  He  also  looks  much  healthier .That  doesn't  stop  the  tears  welling  up  whenever  they  re-run  the  footage  of  the  7-year  old  version.

That's  not  to  say  the  rest  of  the  participants  are  uninteresting. I  particularly  like  Nick, the  farmer's  son  from  the  Yorkshire  Dales  whose  good  humour  and  well-rounded  personality  are  the  greatest  testament  to  the  benefits  of  a  rural  education  in  a  tiny  village  school. He  too  has  had  disappointments, a  divorce  and  the  abandonment  of  a  research  project  in  which   he invested  much  of  his  early  working  life,  but  has  managed  to  shrug  them  off  and  remain  optimistic. I  also  have  a  sneaking  affection  for  Andrew,  one  of  three  well-off  boys  featured. His  life  has  been  the  best  illustration  of  the  series' original  point, panning  out  exactly  as  expected. He is  now  a  solicitor  leading  a  normal  middle  class  family  life , a  thoroughly  decent  guy  with   nothing  remotely  interesting  to  say. You   can  almost  hear  Apted  and  the  crew  seething  with  frustration  at  having  picked  such  a  boring  subject  but  them's  the  breaks. Villain  of  the  piece  is  his  mate  Charles  Furneaux, now  a  TV  producer  himself  and  so  embarrassed  by  his  participation  ( which  ended  after  21 Up )   that  he's  gone  to  court  to  try  and  stop  them  re-running  any  old  footage  of  him.

The  last  one  to  date  was  56  Up  in  2012.  Sadly  the  inevitable  has  now  happened  and  one  of  the  participants , Lynn  Johnson  a  working  class  school  librarian,  died  the  following  year. Apted  has  said  in  the  past  that  he  would  want  a  last  chat  before  any  of  them  passed  away  so  we'll  see  in  63  Up  if  he  got  that  opportunity  with  Lynn.

It's  a  series  that  has  greater  resonance  the  older  you  get. The  further  away  you  get  from  your  own  childhood, the  more  emotional  punch  the  black  and  white  footage  of  those  kids   ( including  the  ghostly  six  who  never  made  the  cut )  in  the  playground  carries. Long  may  it  continue .

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