It began as a one-off look at how the class system
defined the hopes and
aspirations of British children.
Now, almost half a century later, the Up series
has evolved into one of the world's great documentary projects.
But how have
these films affected the lives they follow?
Monday 7 May 2012
This article was published on guardian.co.uk at 20.12 BST on Monday 7 May 2012.
A version appeared on p6 of the G2 section of the Guardian on Tuesday 8 May
2012. It was last modified at 00.05 BST on Tuesday 8 May 2012.
It was first
published at 20.00 BST on Monday 7 May 2012.
Seven Up! first hit the screens in May 1964, and was intended as a one-off
programme, a snapshot of the British class system and the way it conditioned so
much of life. Tim Hewat, the Australian founding editor of World in Action, had
the idea for the programme, and took as its starting point the Jesuit saying:
"Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man." The programme
makers went looking for posh kids and poor kids, expecting them to play their
allotted roles in life.
The Canadian Paul Almond directed that original 40-minute film, and a young
Cambridge graduate called Michael Apted was one of the researchers, responsible
for finding suitable children in the south of England while Gordon McDougall
went in pursuit of children in the north. They found 20, of whom 14 – bright,
spiky, funny – made the cut. The anonymous half-dozen can be seen frolicking at
London zoo in that first programme, and you wonder how they feel having not been
tracked for the rest of their lives. Relieved, perhaps.
Four of the 14 came from the East End of London, and two other boys were in care
– these were the poor end of the spectrum. Contrasted with these were three posh
boys from the same prep school, and a boy and a girl at other boarding schools.
Somewhere in the middle were two boys from a suburban school in Liverpool, and
one from the Yorkshire Dales. As Apted now admits, there were too few women –
outnumbered 10 to four by the men – and the middle class was under-represented.
The choices reflected the world as it was in 1964, when women's place was still
in the home and society was split between employers and employees, captains of
industry and shop stewards, the professions and the rest.
It is worth replaying the beginnings of what has become a television institution
because, though it looks to have been inevitable that the makers would return
every seven years to check on the progress of their proteges, it wasn't. They
only returned at 14 because Denis Forman, the visionary head of Granada TV,
suggested it, and Apted, whose career is now intertwined with the series, took
over as director because Almond was making feature films in Canada. Even the
name might have been different. Seven Up! was Granada founding chairman Sidney
Bernstein's idea, and Hewat and Almond hated it because of possible confusion
with the soft drink. Half a century later, the TV brand has become equally
We have now reached 56 Up and, though several of the participants have
occasionally sat out the seven-yearly update, only one, TV producer Charles
Furneaux, has made what appears to be a definitive break, even attempting to get
Apted to excise his photograph from all material relating to the programme. The
rest, who receive a not very substantial fee for the periodic intrusion on their
lives, have stuck with it.
How long will it continue? "As long as I'm above ground, I'll carry on," says
71-year-old Apted when we meet on the 20th floor of ITV's London HQ. "Maybe if I
wasn't above ground, someone else would take it over. Having come so far it
seems a pity to just unilaterally stop it unless there is good reason. I've only
ever said we'd stop if too many of them pulled out, or people didn't want to
watch it any more. But neither of those things has happened." Producer Claire
Lewis, who joined at 28 Up, wonders what will happen when the participants start
to die. "When we lose somebody it'll make the others think very hard about doing
it again. I don't know what effect that would have on us and on them. It's very
hard watching yourself grow old on screen."
Lewis stays in touch with the participants between the visits, and says they
have become a surrogate family. "It sounds cliched, but it's true. They have
become like cousins, or brothers and sisters. It's an extraordinary
relationship, and because we know them so well it's like seeing a member of the
family that you haven't seen for three months or a year, and you pick up exactly
where you left off." Apted accepts the family analogy, but says that like most
families it can have its problems. "Some of us are close; some of us aren't
close. Some of them like me; some of them don't. A family is a very good image
of what this is, because we've been together for almost 50 years now."
Does he feel responsible for them after so long? "You're fearful when you go
back that bad things will have happened. That's always the documentarian's
curse. You want only good things to happen to everybody, but also you like good
stories. We want a rich programme and we know that life has its ups and downs,
but we are very close to them and it is painful if things aren't going very
The starkest example of things not going well was Neil Hughes, one of the
Liverpudlians. He went from bright-eyed schoolboy to homeless drifter, and spent
much of his 20s and 30s scratching a living in London and the Shetlands. By 49
Up he had found a sort of peace in Cumbria, was active in local politics and in
2010 stood for the Lib Dems in Carlisle. His is the strangest and most extreme
of the lives portrayed in the series.
The new series, which starts on 14 May, will be in three parts, but even that is
only a couple of hours of television. The series gives a snapshot of complex
lives without following every twist and turn. That may be both a strength and a
weakness. The audience is left wanting more, but equally some questions are left
hanging. "You can't sum their lives up in 10 minutes," says Lewis. "All you can
do is try with integrity to give a flavour of the kind of people they are and
what's happened to them."
Do they tell the truth? "Some of them are incredibly open with us," says Apted,
"almost to the point where you want to say: 'Don't tell us that, we don't need
to know.' Others are buttoned up, but you always know it. It's not that people
are lying to you, it's just that they're not coughing it up. That's frustrating,
but you also know they're not getting away with it and they're not doing
themselves any favours."
Seven Up! had a political agenda, but that soon gave way to an attempt
faithfully to follow the rhythm of people's lives. "The overt politics
evaporated," says Apted. "Society's changed. The politics of the films are now
their lives." He differentiates his films from the spate of reality TV shows
that have flooded British screens in the past decade. "I've always fought to
distinguish between documentary films and reality TV. I had to explain when we
did 49 Up that reality TV puts people in unusual or contrived situations and
sees how they respond. What a documentary does is get a snapshot of what the
Apted, who is based in Los Angeles, has had a very successful career making
feature films, but recognises that the Up series will be his epitaph. "This is
the most original of the things I've done, and it's also frameworked my career.
It was the first job I had and it's likely to be the last. It has been
tremendously influential in my life and I feel it's unique. I don't think anyone
will ever do this sort of thing again."
Jackie Bassett was one of three friends from the same school in the East End
chosen for Seven Up! Sue, Lynn and Jackie were inseparable then, and have kept
in touch since. Jackie has had the toughest time of the three – divorce, single
parenthood, the recent death of her partner, and rheumatoid arthritis, which
means she can no longer work – but she remains buoyant, funny, feisty. She moved
to Scotland 20 years ago and now lives in a flat in Motherwell. In 49 Up she
rounded on Apted for being judgmental, suggesting he made too much of her
illness and concentrated on what she couldn't do rather than what she could.
How truthful is she about her life? "There will always be parts you keep back,"
she says. "You have to do that." She never revealed the identity of the father
of her first son, Charlie, born when she was in her 30s after her marriage had
broken up. Nor did she explain why she separated from her later partner Ian,
father of her other two sons. So how full a picture do we get? "About 90%," she
says. "The only things I've kept back are the very private issues that would
hurt people around me if I made them public. I know there are people in this
programme who have made just about everything public" – she is thinking of taxi
driver Tony Walker, who in 42 Up owned up to infidelities – "but I think they
now regret those deeply. I don't know how you could do that on national
Why did she give Apted such a hard time in 49 Up? "When we were younger he would
ask questions about our personal lives that he wouldn't dream of asking Andrew,
John and Charles [the prep-school boys]. It was a class thing. But I don't think
even he realised he'd done that. He had certain ideas about the way things
should go, and for a long while he couldn't deviate from that. Last time we did
the programme I was much more confident in myself and in my home situation, and
I just decided that today's the day that I tell him exactly what I'm thinking.
He was a bit shocked by it." She refuses to be seen as a victim. "I live with
the rheumatoid arthritis, but it doesn't rule me. Michael believes that's the
total reality of my life, but I don't want to be seen that way."
Is the Jesuit saying that underpinned the original programme correct? Could
these lives have been predicted at seven? "I think it's probably true," she
says. "I've turned out pretty much as expected." In 49 Up, Bassett asked Apted
whether he thought she'd turned out badly. Did that really bother her? "It's not
that I worry about it," she says. "I was pushing his perceptions again. I think
he had an idea of where we would all end up. Sue [who has a job as a university
administrator] has exceeded his expectations, and I don't think I've achieved
his expectations. But I know I've had a good life."
Symon Basterfield's life has been a triumph against the odds. He never knew his
father, his mother suffered from depression and he was in care when Seven Up!
was made in 1964. His father was black, his mother white, and he suffered
prejudice from both sides. His first marriage, which produced five children in
less than 10 years, ended in divorce. His life was in such chaos with his
divorce and the death of his mother that he chose not to appear in 35 Up. But he
remarried, had another son and he and his wife became foster parents. More than
60 vulnerable children have been cared for at his neat house on the edge of
Heathrow, where he works as a freight handler.
"At 14 and 21, I did think the programme was an intrusion," he says, "but
afterwards it goes. It's like anything – we're today's big news when the
programmes go out and then it's back to normal. It's not like we're constantly
watched." The programme-makers keep in touch, but contact is distant because
they want to be surprised when they return.
Why did he sit out 35 Up? "I was going through a part of my life where I
realised that some of the things I was doing weren't right for me. Normally I
would just go with the flow, but I felt I'm not me at this stage. I couldn't
have been honest. It's a period I don't want to talk about." He is still
unwilling to talk about his divorce or say anything that would hurt his first
Is it a weakness of the programme that when life becomes really difficult, the
subject pulls out? "No," he says. "If you watch Big Brother and the jungle, it
becomes cheap. You might be watching Jeremy Kyle. People think they'll get their
case over, but they don't because their case might be one, two, three, five, 10
years long, and you're trying to pack 10 years into 15, 20 minutes. Some things
are better left unsaid. If everything was shown, it would be detrimental. We
would drown people who were watching. They'd be soaked up in it at first, but
after a while it would press in on them. It would not leave enough room for them
to think about their own lives."
He says that what began as a sociological exercise became a more human
engagement with individual lives. "In the beginning you could see exactly what
they wanted. I noticed that with Paul [who was in the same care home] and I. We
were supposed to have aspirations to what we wanted in life, but the boys from
wealthy backgrounds were encouraged to say their lives were plotted and planned.
It was all hopes and dreams for us, but their lives were mapped out."
And did they prove the premise – that you can take the boy of seven and see the
man? "In some ways they did," he says, "but also no, because you're not just
dealing with a sociological experiment. It's real life as well, and those people
have developed for themselves. Nothing is clear-cut." Symon is living proof of
that. The shy, disadvantaged boy of seven who became a bit of a star.
Bruce Balden, who teaches maths at St Albans school, was at pre-prep school in
1964 when he was selected for Seven Up! If he had been given the choice, would
he have taken part? "I wouldn't have minded," he says. "They haven't portrayed
me in an accusatory way. It might be different for some of the others, who've
had a rougher time than I have. Cardinal Richelieu had that famous saying: 'Give
me six lines by the most honest man, and I'll find something in there to hang
him.' If they film you for a couple of days, they can portray you any way they
like, but they've always portrayed me quite nicely."
Does he tell the truth? "There are one or two things I covered up, mainly
because they might have hurt people close to me. But on the other hand I have
said one or two things which have been revelatory, and I've regretted saying
them. I've made comments on family members which I regretted, but they're good
at spotting if it's too raw.They're not sensationalists, which makes it easier
to come back to."
Balden's father was in the RAF and then worked in Rhodesia. His parents
separated, and he came back to the UK with his mother and boarded at a school in
Hampshire, living with his aunt in the holidays because his mother worked.
He seemed a little lost in Seven Up! – "If I watch myself at seven," he says, "I
don't think that's me" – and only when he married and had two sons did his life
take on a more settled aspect, after two decades in which he had appeared to be
attempting singlehandedly to put the world to rights, teaching at a challenging
school in the East End and doing a stint in Bangladesh.
How did his mother react to the programme? "The last time, they were filming me
outside my old boarding school. I said I'd boarded here because of family
circumstances, and I know my mother felt a bit guilty about that. I didn't have
time to say there were advantages and it was a difficult situation, and it came
across a bit glib, in effect blaming my mother when I wasn't really." His father
saw the programme when he retired to the UK, and Balden says he was proud of it.
His sons love it, his wife accepts it – if she objected, he says he would pull
out – and the boys he teaches only rib him gently.
Does he feel any guilt about leaving the East End for his present leafy
surroundings? "Not really," he says. "It was life circumstances, and what was
best for me and my family. You have to live your own life." Even when millions
of others are living it alongside you.
Une nuit de
février 1999, Sean Sellers est exécuté par injection au pénitencier de Mc
Alester, dans l’Oklahoma. Il avait été condamné à mort treize ans plus tôt pour
un triple meurtre - il a tué sa mère, son beau-père, et un gérant de
supermarché. La sentence est terrible : il n’a que 16 ans à l’époque des faits,
mais il est jugé comme un adulte. Il est même le plus jeune condamné à mort des
cinquante dernières années aux Etats-Unis. David André, le réalisateur d’Une
peine infinie, a rencontré Sellers quelques semaines avant sa mort en 1999. Dix
ans plus tard, il a voulu revenir sur son histoire. Avec une seule certitude,
qu’il énonce en introduction : «La peine de mort agit comme un poison sur tous
ceux qui y participent.»
David André a enquêté pour retrouver toutes les personnes liées à l’exécution de
Sean Sellers. Parents, amis, victimes, matons, pasteur, avocat, procureur. Le
réalisateur rencontre chaque chaînon d’un système qui va du prononcé de la
condamnation jusqu’à l’injection mortelle. Tous, d’une façon ou d’une autre,
qu’elle qu’ait été leur rôle dans l’exécution, ressentent une part de
culpabilité dans la mort du jeune homme. L’avocat raconte tous ses clients
exécutés. Les gardiens de prison, eux, décrivent la sidération des condamnés le
jour de leur mort. Le réalisateur ne cherche jamais à excuser les crimes de Sean
Sellers. Sa culpabilité est avérée, là n’est pas la question. Mais au contraire,
en partant du cas d’un coupable, son argumentaire n’en est que plus magistral.
Peut-on justifier de tuer quelqu’un au nom de la justice, même si la culpabilité
est prouvée ? L’effet dissuasif de la peine capitale n’a jamais été prouvé. Où
se situe le désir de vengeance ?
Depuis les coursives grises du pénitencier jusqu’à la paisible campagne de cet
Etat au cœur des Etats-Unis, Une peine infinie livre une réflexion incarnée et
troublante sur la peine de mort, les dégâts qu’elle cause et la part qu’elle
occupe dans la culture américaine. Le documentaire montre comment cette peine
engendre d’autres peines, infinies. Sans chercher à être militant abolitionniste
de la peine capitale, il n’occulte rien de son absurdité.
A brilliant new documentary demonstrates
the US is making the same mistakes in Afghanistan
as it did in Vietnam, writes Peter Bradshaw
4 / 5
Thursday 7 October 2010
This article was published
on guardian.co.uk at 22.25 BST on Thursday 7 October
A version appeared on p12
of the Film & music section of the Guardian
Friday 8 October 2010.
The shadow of Vietnam, and the Vietnam war movie, is never far away during
this outstanding fly-on-the-wall documentary about the US military experience in
Afghanistan by the British photographer Tim Hetherington and the American
journalist Sebastian Junger, famed for his 1997 non-fiction bestseller The
Perfect Storm. For one year, Hetherington and Junger accompanied a single
platoon on a tour of duty in the dangerous Korangal valley, in which the
soldiers – horribly exposed, and with a knowledge of the terrain so far inferior
to the enemy's that it was practically blindfold guesswork – had to build a
forward outpost to establish their position. This they name Restrepo after one
of their popular comrades, Private Juan "Doc" Restrepo, killed at the campaign's
outset. This defiant tribute springs from a need to impose their collective
identity on this alien and menacing landscape.
The platoon is also required to promote an uneasy hearts-and-minds policy among
notionally friendly locals. The soldiers must conduct regular, tense meetings
with Afghans, lecturing them about the economic benefits they can bring with
supposed transport projects, clearly suspecting every one of them of helping the
Taliban, while the locals, though strategically deadpan, clearly resent the
Americans. An early sequence shows US military helicopters bringing troops into
Afghanistan, then switches to the soldiers' scared, vertiginous point-of-view as
they gaze down into the valley in which they will be sitting ducks; it is a very
"Nam" moment, and the tension is all but unbearable. You can't help but admire
their bravery and that of Hetherington and Junger who have had to keep their
nerve and keep filming. The nail-biting sequences are interspersed with
interviews conducted after the event, which carry a concealed emotional charge.
It is only from these that we can be certain which soldiers have survived.
I was reminded of an essay PJ O'Rourke once wrote about visiting Russia in the
1980s, at the height of the controversy over its invasion of Afghanistan. A
Russian teases O'Rourke about his country's recent history: "Vietnam – too bad!"
O'Rourke replies crisply: "Land war in Asia very bad – and some countries do not
learn from an example!" These soldiers' Asian land war is wearing them down
quickly. The Taliban are all around, able to get frighteningly close to the
Americans' position, with impunity. Young soldiers are seeing troops being shot
dead in front of their eyes. When Junger and Hetherington interview one of them
about this experience, he breaks off mid-speech – and of course we, the
audience, expect tears: it is a familiar moment in all types of documentary. But
what is happening is more disturbing. The man has broken off in a kind of horror
at remembering what he has clearly repressed until this moment. It is a
flashback – that cinematic term widely applied to post-traumatic disorder.
Restrepo is clearly a movie focused on the Americans' fear and suffering, rather
than the Afghans', leaving the judgment up to us. It is a scary, moving and
Production year: 2010
Cert (UK): 15
Runtime: 93 mins
Directors: Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington