What Becomes of the Dreams of Children?
“It is a mystery, this business of life. I can’t think of any [other] cinematic undertaking that allows us to realize that more deeply.” − Roger Ebert
In 1964, director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist) was a young researcher on the experimental documentary series “World in Action” for a program called “Seven Up!,” produced for England’s Granada Television. Taking its cue from the Jesuit maxim “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the film focused on seven-year-olds from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. By asking 14 children about their lives and their hopes and fears for the future, the filmmakers aimed to explore contemporary English attitudes, especially regarding the class system, as expressed by children. And by following the youngsters as they progressed through life, the “Up” series looked to test the strength of that system and the truth of the Jesuit saying. Was the adult already visible in the seven-year-old?
After “Seven Up!,” Apted took the series’ directorial helm, and over the half-century since, he has returned every seven years to ask the same subjects to talk about how they see their lives. The result has been a unique, inspired and always-surprising chronicle of lives-in-the-making. In “56 Up,” Apted finds the “kids” have mostly weathered the marital, parental and career tumults of middle age with remarkable aplomb, even as they begin facing the challenges of aging, illness and economic crises.
Meet the people in “56 Up”:
Ebullient, charming, cockney-accented East Ender Tony wanted to be a jockey when we met him in “Seven Up!” The series followed him as he saw his dream come true and then gave it up to be a cabbie. He’s been successful enough to own a home in England, which he shares with his wife, Debbie, and their children and grandchildren. He also owns a vacation home in Spain. In “56 Up,” Tony shows the lot he was planning to develop before the economy turned sour. He seems happy, yet he harbors guilt about infidelities and frustration with the immigrants who have changed his beloved East End. He talks about 32 years of marriage. “High and low, Debbie has stood by me,” he says tearfully. “At the end of it, I still love her so.” As he visits the London 2012 Olympic Stadium, formerly the site of a dog track in his East End neighborhood, he brims with pride. The “Up” series has brought him such recognition that when astronaut Buzz Aldrin was his passenger, a taxi driver pulled up and requested an autograph. As Tony asked Aldrin to oblige, the other cabbie said, “No … I want your autograph.” Says Tony, “To this day I thought to myself, ‘I’m more famous than Buzz Aldrin? He’s the second man to land on the moon!’”
“I want to be an astronaut, or if I can’t be an astronaut, I think I’ll be a coach driver,” said seven-year-old Liverpudlian Neil. He went from happy child to homeless young adult to a man working doggedly at political and writing careers that can’t sustain him financially. He says he’s appearing in “56 Up” in part because he “wants to set the record straight in a number of ways. For so many millions of people I’m here wearing my heart on my sleeve and they think they know absolutely everything about me.” Despite doubts about God and religion expressed in previous “Up” films, Neil is seen in “56 Up” working as a lay minister at a local church.
Peter and Neil were friends growing up in Liverpool. Peter stopped participating after “28 Up” because the media and viewers saw him as “angry young Red in Thatcher’s England,” but he has returned for “56 Up” with the frank intention of promoting his folk band the Good Intentions. “I was an easy target,” he says of his experience 28 years ago. “I was absolutely taken aback, genuinely shocked by … the level of malice and ill will directed at me. Until you’ve experienced it yourself, you can’t begin to appreciate how it feels.” With two children and a wife, Gabbie, who shares his passion for music and plays accordion in the band, “I feel a lot happier with myself, happier in my own skin.” He left the teaching profession shortly after “28 Up,” studied law and joined the civil service. “I don’t think really life is there to be regretted,” he says. “Life is there to be lived.”
Nick, who went from farm boy to Oxford University student to nuclear-fusion researcher to teacher of electrical engineering, and Suzy, who was one of the more privileged children and who became a homemaker, interview each other and debate the effects of the film. Says Suzy, “The problem I have is that you don’t get a very rounded picture, you get the odd comment.” She vowed at age 49 that she would bow out of the series, yet, she laughs, “I suppose I have this ridiculous sense of loyalty to it.” Adds Nick: “They film me doing all this daft stuff and it’s seven days out of every seven years … it’s all this excitement … and then they present this tiny little snippet and it’s like, ‘Is that all there is to me?’” Yet Nick, who lives in the United States with his second wife, Cryss, also presents the most spirited defense of the series, saying, “The idea of looking at a bunch of people over time and how they evolve was a really nifty idea. It isn’t a picture really of the essence of Nick or Suzy; it’s a picture of everyman.”
Sue, who spent her middle years as a working single mom, is in a long-term relationship, has happy children and has advanced to the top of the administrative department of the School of Law at Queen Mary, University of London, even though she never went to college. Paul, who lived in a children’s home as a seven-year-old, emigrated to Australia in his early teens and is happily married with five grandchildren; he’s proud that his daughter, Katy, is the first member of his family to go to university.
Symon lived in the same children’s home as Paul. The only child of a single mother who died at age 35, he is biracial. He’s survived a divorce and has a difficult relationship with his five children from the union. “56 Up” finds him working in a warehouse and living happily with his second wife, Vienetta, and his 18-year-old son. Symon and Vienetta have an incredibly busy life, which includes fostering children and teens, who express their profound gratitude in “56 Up.” If Symon has one regret, it’s that he didn’t push himself academically, but his wife’s drive makes up for his laid-back personality.
The “Up” series has followed Jackie through marriage, divorce and childbirths. In “56 Up,” she tells viewers about the family deaths she has endured — her sister, ex-husband, mother-in-law, stepmother and brother-in-law — as well as government cuts to her disability benefits for rheumatoid arthritis. Yet the birth of her first grandchild brings hope and joy, and she has even dipped a toe into internet dating. Despite all her troubles, she sees herself as an optimist. “My glass is always half-full, never half-empty. That’s the way it will continue to be, I hope.”
Lynn, Jackie’s schoolmate, was the seven-year-old who wanted to work in Woolworth’s. Instead, she was a children’s librarian for more than 30 years. Happily married, she has a growing family of grandchildren but recently lost her job due to budget cuts. Then the financial crisis hit, and one of her grandchildren was born prematurely. “What I thought was stress was nothing,” she says. But her husband of 37 years “is still my soul mate. We’ve just grown together.”
Andrew and John, along with Charles (who stopped appearing after “28 Up”), were attending a pre-preparatory school in Kensington in “Seven Up!” and they exhibited almost comically upper-crust attitudes. “I read the Financial Times,” the seven-year old Andrew declared, while little John chimed in, “We think I’m going to Cambridge and Trinity Hall.” Andrew married, had two sons and became a partner at a firm of solicitors. John studied at Oxford and became a barrister. He married Claire, and the two have spearheaded environmental projects in England and charitable work in Bulgaria, which he finds more satisfying than “winning some fantastic case on some ludicrous, arcane point of law.” In “56 Up,” John explains that he missed a couple of films because he felt the depiction of him as privileged was a misrepresentation. “What viewers were never told was that my father died when I was nine, leaving my mother in very uncomfortable financial circumstances … and that I got a scholarship to Oxford.”
Bruce, as a boy attending private school, wanted to be a missionary in Africa. Instead, he graduated from Oxford, and at 35 took a sabbatical to teach in Bangladesh. Over the years, he longed for a spouse. In “42 Up,” Bruce revealed he had met a fellow teacher, Penny, while working in London’s East End and had tied the knot. In “56 Up,” they are still married and have two sons who attend a Quaker school.