First Principles December 2006

Ordinary People

A remarkable celebration of unremarkable lives deflates pat social theories of both the right and the left
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In 1964 a documentary called Seven Up! first aired on British television. Simple in conception, it consisted of interviews with fourteen seven-year-old children. They were asked about their lives, their friends, their ambitions—and they were artfully chosen to represent different economic segments of English society.

The filmmakers had a thesis to advance, bound up with the British preoccupation with class and class-based predestination and expressed in the Jesuit maxim “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” words the narrator speaks at the start of the film. Here is the future of British society, he announces, already formed in these youngsters.

The film caused a stir in Britain when it was first broadcast, and it remains fascinating. The children are endlessly interesting, and so are the uncalculated, incidental glimpses one sees over their shoulders of the Britain of forty years ago. But Seven Up! turned out to be the beginning of a much larger—and altogether unique—undertaking. Every seven years since that first movie, the director Michael Apted (who was a researcher for the first program) has taken his cameras back to the same fourteen children and made a new documentary about them, each time splicing earlier interviews with newer material, and releasing in turn a series of self-contained films: 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, and so on. The newest installment, 49 Up, is now being released on DVD (the earlier installments are all available on DVD).

Click here to watch the trailer for 49 Up

The films are remarkable—without doubt the most interesting thing I ever expect to see on screen. Their cumulative effect is intellectually and emotionally overwhelming. I am a recent immigrant from Britain to the United States; I grew up, and into middle age, with these films. (I am two years older than the subjects, and recognize segments of my own life’s trajectory in their stories.) Still, it surprised me to find that so few Americans appear to have seen them, or even to be aware of them. I highly recommend them to you.

We all tend to conceive of society in terms of strata of different kinds, defined by income or educational background, political affiliation or cultural affinity—the list is endless. Are you northern or southern, red state or blue state, urban or rural, straight or gay, soccer mom or metrosexual? Unavoidably, in thinking about politics, or public policy, one thinks about groups—whether it is right to advance the interests of this or that part of society, and at what cost to the interests of others. Then, in our own social lives, a quite separate realm, we deal not with types but with people—whether family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances; those we love, those we like, those we detest—all of them individuals, set apart from their group identities. The Up films merge these planes of perception. You are forced to see a stratified society, as if from a great distance. But while you look you are also seeing and becoming attached to the fully formed individuals, aging before your eyes, who populate each layer. It is a deeply unsettling experience.

It isn’t so much that the films confirm or refute any particular theories of society—including the one that the filmmakers were first advancing in 1964. In many ways, it is true, the idea of social predestination is validated. There are qualifications and complications, of course, but social immobility emerges as a main finding of the series. (And while Americans might flatter themselves that it is otherwise on this side of the Atlantic, they are in fact no more mobile than the British—a subject for another time.) Oddly, however, what mostly happens in the films is that this opening agenda just falls away, becoming curiously trivial. Viewers and filmmakers alike (Apted has made the observation in interviews) just lose interest in it. The subjects’ lives are so much richer and more compelling than any theories one might form about them.

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