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 .