The maxim "Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man" comes from a Jesuit belief that the values and discipline children are instilled with early on will shape the rest of their lives, no matter what happens afterward. In 1964, the BBC played off this theory with Seven Up, a 40-minute black-and-white television special which brought together 14 7-year-old British children from radically different social and economic classes. The kids were filmed at the zoo, a party, and a playground, and interviewed about their thoughts on money, school, marriage, and their future careers. The program ended with the Jesuit maxim, followed by the sententious statement, "This has been a glimpse of Britain's future."
Filmmaker Michael Apted—who has directed everything from documentaries to concert films to Hollywood features like Gorillas In The Mist and Nell—was a researcher on Seven Up. He returned seven years later to interview the same 14 subjects for the 50-minute follow-up TV special 7 Plus Seven, and he's spoken to them every seven years since. The result is one of the most remarkable and ambitious documentary projects in film history, not to mention the granddaddy of all reality television. The six installments currently comprising "The Up Series"—the two initial television specials and four full-length films, newly available in an extras-light five-DVD box set—return to Seven Up's subjects over and over, tracking how their lives, values, and beliefs change as they get through school, find jobs, start families, and evaluate their experiences. A few of the interviewees drop in and out of the project as it continues, but most stick with it, offering candid and direct glimpses into ordinary lives that do in some cases seem to have been well in motion when they were 7.
The original Seven Up is little more than a curiosity and a background piece, in which a series of relatively interchangeable kids are adorably precocious in their frankness, pugnacity, or snootiness. But by 7 Plus Seven, the personality differences are so clear that they throw the earlier interviews into a new light, and the number of children who accurately predicted their futures and future interests is remarkable. As the series continues, Apted matches segments of earlier interviews with later ones, bringing ironies and idiosyncrasies alike to light. The repetition can be dulling—the films make heavy use of the same few key sequences, as identifiers for viewers who were seeing the installments as they were made, seven years apart—but it's still fascinating to watch as faces fill in or hollow out, as personalities develop and perspectives mature, and as clothing, hairstyles, and attitudes change radically, but values often persist.
The filmmaking itself is pedestrian: Most of the Up films lean heavily toward talking-head interviews. The later entries loosen up with shots of the subjects out in the world, living their lives and raising their children, but the overall style is staid and patterned, with Apted asking the same questions over and over to establish how his interviewees' beliefs compare with their earlier ones, and with those of his other subjects. But while Apted's linear approach can be plodding, it's also probing, insightful, and direct, and it causes hypnotically personal themes to develop. In 7 Plus Seven, the subjects tend to be shy but hopeful, giggly about the opposite sex, and serious about politics and the future. In 21 Up, there's more confidence and more questioning, about the Up project as well as about life and morals in general. By 28 Up, most of the subjects are happy and stable, focused on marriage, family, and careers; by 35 Up, they're settled in, but dealing with routine, lowered expectations, and in some cases the deaths of their parents, their marriages, or their dreams. In 1998, 42 Up highlighted a group ready to look back philosophically on class, their former selves, and their experiences with the Up series. With any luck, 2006 will see the première of 49 Up, as this extraordinary series of time-capsule features continues.