Ordinary People

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

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.

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.