First Principles December 2006

Ordinary People

A remarkable celebration of unremarkable lives deflates pat social theories of both the right and the left

The audience is constantly reminded of the fragility of its well-being, of its vulnerability to luck and circumstance. The most instantly appealing of the seven-year-olds is Neil. As a little boy, he talks with a chuckle, beaming away at the camera and telling the interviewer that he wants to be an astronaut, or if he cannot be an astronaut, a coach driver. You can drive people to the seaside, he laughs, and they give you a microphone so you can tell them where they are and all about it. In one shot that stays in the head, he is shown without voice-over just skipping down the street. At fourteen, all that joy is draining away. He seems to be struggling at school. The cares of the world are beginning to press down. At twenty-one, after dropping out of college—he had longed to go to Oxford but failed to get in, and three years later is still tortured by it—he is working as a casual laborer, living in a London squat, and showing signs of depressive illness. Poverty, homelessness, despair, and fears for his sanity come next; but then, in the latest two installments of the series, a recovery of sorts occurs, improbable and marvelous to see.

At seven, three of the boys are attending the same expensive prep school. They are shown in class singing “Waltzing Matilda” in Latin. Similar, privileged backgrounds, you see, and indeed the later films show that they all end up doing well professionally. A theory of social injustice—advantage passes from parent to child—is confirmed. And that is an important truth, to be sure. Yet one also sees that it is less than the whole truth. These die-cast children of the English upper class grow into completely different people, marked in different measure by satisfaction, disappointment, fatigue. Throughout the series, what make the deepest impressions are not the constants, the conforming-to-theory similarities, but the untidy, subtly shifting differences.

All of the stories are captivating—and this is striking in itself, since most of these lives, briefly described, would seem pretty dull. Four of the characters drop out or appear only intermittently during the series, but the others are always there. Everybody who consents to take part is interviewed each time. In other words, there has been no attempt to select, or to dwell especially heavily on, the most interesting lives.

Tony, a lovable East End ruffian, wants at age seven to be a jockey; he tries and fails, and later becomes a London cabbie and part-time television actor (usually playing a London cabbie). Suzy, the sad young daughter of wealthy landowning parents, is lonely and withdrawn at fourteen, depressed and chain-smoking at twenty-one; but she later finds happiness in marriage and motherhood, and in helping others cope with grief. Three daughters of working-class families, Jackie, Lynn, and Sue, first interviewed together as giggling schoolmates, all have to contend, in different ways, with subsequent successes and setbacks. In differing degrees, the lives of these three are a struggle, but each has its own full measure of love and friendship and happiness. They are proud individuals, demanding (more so, as the series progresses) to be understood as such. The point is, these are not the most interesting stories of all the ones the filmmakers could have told. The films tell all the stories, and every one is captivating.

Stereotypes—which are artifacts, per­haps, of especially bad theories—are constantly undermined. Simon, living in a children’s home at seven, is by twenty-eight an unskilled worker with limited prospects and five children. His marriage later breaks down, and in due course he appears with a new wife, child, and stepchild. Reading the bare facts, one might regard Simon as a feckless and irresponsible man, casually inflicting the fatherless childhood he experienced as a boy on his own children—or, alternatively, as the helpless victim of circumstance, failing as a father because that was bound to be his fate. Watching the films, you see that neither is true. Simon had a difficult childhood: aside from the broken home, he is of mixed race, and was sometimes made to feel an outsider by blacks and whites alike. But he made bad choices as well, as he admits (“I was a lazy sod when I was younger”). He could have done better, had he chosen to, and he knows it. He makes no excuses. He is impossible to dislike, and irreducible to an example of something. Getting to know him stifles any instinct to condemn or condescend.

“Give me a child at seven, and I will give you the man.” Does privilege early in life make it easier to prosper as an adult? Yes. Do early setbacks spoil your chances? Of course they do. The children of rich parents tend to be rich; the children of poor parents do much less well. One cannot watch these films without wanting to lean hard against the unfairness of this world. Yet one sees, also, that satisfaction in life is not the same thing as material success. Though one emerges disinclined to mold these lives to theories, one comes away suspecting that happiness, contentment, and self-respect are character traits as much as they are fruits of success. Money matters, obviously, but so do whether you are crushed by disappointment or spurred by it, sociable or solitary, restless or settled, capable or incapable of intimacy, deserving or undeserving of trust. And loneliness, maybe, is worse than poverty.

Ideally, have lots of money and a large capacity for happiness. But if you had to choose just one, these films suggest which it should be.

Clive Crook is an Atlantic senior editor.
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