In 1964 Granada TV took the Jesuit maxim “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man” as inspiration for a series which documented the lives of 14 seven year olds every seven years. Now they are 56.
When it was first broadcast, Seven Up! shocked many with its emphasis on class – but that is what made it such compelling viewing. For me, this first programme remains the most powerful – at the time, I had been teaching seven year olds in an east London primary school.
The children in Seven Up! were very open and also amazingly realistic. The East End girl says, “When I grow up, I’m going to work in Woolworths,” while the prep school boy explains, “I read the Financial Times to see how my shares are doing.” The boy in a children’s home says that he doesn’t want to get married because he would have to eat whatever his wife cooked “and I don’t like greens”.
Contemporary reality TV has been described as “the adult version of happy slapping”. It sets out to humiliate people and film that humiliation. Seven Up! and its sequels are reality TV that respects people and shows their humanity and resilience.
Through the glimpses of these people’s lives every seven years, the show provides a snapshot of changes in society. We see the seven year olds in the adults and notice how their backgrounds have shaped their lives: how some have overcome disadvantages and others have faced a multitude of problems, like the grandmother whose rheumatoid arthritis means that often she can hardly get out of bed, yet has been deemed fit for work and had her benefits stopped.
56 Up is definitely worth watching, but it is the series as a whole that provides a compelling insight into our changing society.
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