Lucky Number Seven

56 Up, the latest in a decades-long longitudinal study of a set of British kids as they age, reveals the benefits of inhereited privilege and the limits of argument by anecdote

Michael Apted’s Up series began as an explicitly political documentary project. By following a group of twenty British children from the age of seven in 1964, he set out to show that a child’s lot in life is largely predetermined by his or her social class. “Show me a child at seven, and I will show you the man,” declares a voiceover at the start of each installment, paraphrasing Francis Xavier. Since the initial episode, Seven Up, Apted has checked up on 14 of these kids every seven years and asked them to reflect on their jobs, their personal lives, their health, and the decisions they’d made. He named each subsequent film after how old his characters were at the time he was filming — 14 Up, 21 Up, 28 Up, and so on.

Apted’s thesis about social class turned out to be rather accurate — statistically speaking, at least. By the time 56 Up, the latest in his series, came out in January, the OECD had released data showing that Britain had some of the worst social mobility in the developed world. The Guardian completed its own analysis of the data, which shows that mobility has changed very little since the 1970s. And one study even claims that descendants of prominent 19th century families — Jane Austen’s Darcys and Percys — are still benefiting from their ancient privilege today.

watch the 56 Up trailer here

Whether or not Up’s case studies live up (or down) to his vision is another question entirely. Seven Up, the debut that sets the scene for the series’ projections, was directed by Paul Almond, with Apted researching the series. In it, we meet upper-crustness incarnate in the form of three little boys named Andrew, Charles, and John. The boys are introduced singing Waltzing Matilda in Latin at their preparatory school — a mark of the privilege the directors assume will define their entire lives. Before the camera, in a grainy black and white, the boys describe with unnverving certainty their presumed paths through the best elementary schools and colleges and onto Oxford, Cambridge, and law certifications.

The boys are asked about the cost of education, and agree that it shouldn’t be free. They complain about uncooperative classmates who cause them to lose house points (think Harry Potter). One of the most cited scenes shows the boys comparing their choice of newspapers. “I read the Observer and the Times,” brags the stiff-lipped John, chiming in after haughty little Andrew parrots his father in declaring that he reads the FT to check on his stocks. To a contemporary viewer in the U.S., their proclamations sound uproariously funny — as though they should be going viral on YouTube a la “Charlie Bit Me,” not the centerpiece of a serious documentary. The Financial Times? Stock shares? A seven-year-old?

These boys all grew up to become who they had always already been thanks to the opportunities their background afforded them. They had dreams — or were they plans? — and these dreams, for the most part, came true. John and Andrew went to Oxbridge, became lawyers, and remained in the upper echelons of British society. Charles didn’t get into Oxford, but he went to Durham — loosely equivalent to a Duke or a GWU, in terms of prestige — then dropped out of the series. Keeping comically close to script for the upper-class life of a British gentleman, Andrew turns a ramshackle barn into a spotless English country estate complete with perfect little hedges, trimmed just so.

A fourth upper-class boy, Bruce, has a less predictable life. At seven he’s a boarder at another fancy school, and says his “heart’s desire” is to see his father, who’s in Africa. Bruce also tells the directors that when he grows up, he’d like to be a missionary, but by his teens he abandons that idea, discovers socialism, and goes on to read math at Oxford. Bruce comes off as thoughtful and kind — it’s clear that he wants to use his good fortune to help others — and lives out his commitment to social justice by teaching in low-income schools in the East End and Bangladesh. Still, he gets burned out by his job, and, by his 50s, ends up where he began: teaching at a prestigious school in London, married to a colleague, with two sons.

It’s not just privileged men that Apted’s films show. The rich boys’ female counterpart is Suzy, whose parents divorce when she’s young. Suzy comes off as cold and petulant early on in the series, and in one scene, rolls her eyes at the camera as her pet dog kills a rabbit in the background. As a young adult, Suzy chain-smokes, lives in Paris, goes to secretarial college, and generally floats around, unsure of her goals. Then, in her 20s, she marries Rupert, a man of considerable means, and suddenly seems much happier. When asked about her change of heart, Suzy credits Rupert for lifting her out of a depressed state that she says originated when her parents divorced. Like Andrew and his wife, Suzy and Rupert live in the country, dote on their children, and live comfortably.

It’s easy to interpret Apted’s message about his upper-class characters as fatalistic — that because of their wealth, they’ll always be on top. John, a self-professed reactionary, takes issue with Apted’s representations of rich and poor, pointing out that he spent many sleepless nights studying for exams in 14. It is later revealed that John’s father died when he was a child, leaving his mother to work to put him through school and earn scholarships (and, undoubtedly, Andrew put a lot of legwork into his gardening). John frames Apted’s failure to acknowledge the whole truth as a sort of political statement — while John believes that the meritocracy is alive and well, Apted, at least in the beginning, seems to dismiss the possibility of such a notion entirely.

But Apted’s examples of privilege don’t illustrate the notion that the rich don’t do their homework. None of his rich characters are lackadaisical or lazy — in fact, they all work rather hard, whether it’s in the home, in school, or at the law firm. There are no trust-fund hipsters in this show. The difference for the rich boys is that just doing their homework — doing things right, so to speak — will, more often than not, afford them success. The stakes are lower, the rewards are higher, and beyond simply money, they benefited considerably from the conditions under which they were raised.

That money isn’t everything is another consistent theme in Apted’s films, and it’s to his credit that he acknowledges the unequal distribution not just of wealth, but of talents, resilience, and character — all of which have far-reaching effects. After all, it’s almost as much of a gamble to inherit good health, a determined disposition, or an aptitude for math, as it is to be born into a wealthy family.

Take Neil: a vivacious little boy from a solidly middle-class family who, at seven, is taken by the idea of being a bus driver when he grows up. By 14, he’s thoughtful and a little despondent, and by 21, he’s been rejected from Oxford, tried out Aberdeen University for size, and dropped out to live in a squat in London. Even though Neil’s parents were teachers and he clearly has a mind for less menial work, he does odd building jobs, pounds out writing no one will read on his typewriter by night, and at one point, ends up homeless, trudging through the Northern countryside looking for the warmest shed to sleep in. He admits to having been suicidal at times, but by 56, he’s found some stability, living in a small town and making ends meet by working as a representative in local politics. Neil’s problem isn’t his lack of inspiration or motivation: It’s an untreated mental health problem, and it’s not his fault.

The trajectories of John, Charles, and Andrew’s lower-class, female contemporaries serve as further examples of how external circumstances can more drastically affect the lives of working-class individuals. At age seven, Sue, Lynn, and Jackie giggle, squirm, and fall all over each other. They lack the composure of the rich boys, who, throughout the series, seemed distinctly aware that they are being filmed. Apted sets the three little East London girls up for futures as cashiers, waitresses, wives, and mothers — but what really happens is more interesting.

By her early 20s, Jackie — the more rambunctious of the three kids — has finished comprehensive school (a nonacademic track) and gotten married. She has a house and a mortgage, but no plans to have children. “I’m too selfish,” she explains, as though she owes us a justification. Shortly after 28 Up is filmed, Jackie leaves the house, the husband, and her job behind, and moves up North. In her 30s, she has three kids by two different men, one who was never really in the picture and one who dies of cancer. By 56, she lives in public housing, unable to work because of a serious case of arthritis. She says she wants to go back to school, but because of her condition, she can’t.

Lynn, a wan, no-nonsense young woman with straight black hair, goes to grammar school and starts a career as children’s librarian. She loves books and children; she’s content at her job. Lynn stays happily married, has two daughters, and despite a health scare, has a stable life — until she’s laid off because of cuts in government funding.

The third girl, Sue, does better than her friends in material terms. She goes to comprehensive school and puts off marriage until she wants kids, which, at 24, is hardly old. She’s divorced by 35, and admits to having had a difficult time raising her kids while working, but she lands a part-time administrative job at a law school and, by 56, is working full-time as a top administrator there. Sue owns her home, is in a long-term relationship, and seems positively radiant.

Did the girls move up the class ladder? It depends who you’re looking at. Sue’s done well, but Jackie’s struggling, and Lynn’s professional luck took a turn for the worse. Apted doesn’t judge or look for reasons for why the girls’ material luck diverged. His message seems to be that while we’re all are creatures of circumstance to some extent, the poor are less insulated from life’s hazards than the rich — and that even if they do everything right and exploit every scrap of luck, talent, and resilience they come by, they may still fall short.

That isn’t to say that hard work counts for nothing, which Nick and Tony, both from working-class backgrounds, exemplify. Nick, a farmer’s son who landed a spot at Oxford to study physics, winds up leaving England to become a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He says he left because he wanted to work on nuclear engineering and felt there was no place in the U.K. for him to do that. Apted focuses a lot on Nick’s emigration: he seems to want us to view Nick’s move as somehow instrumental to his success. The evolution of Nick’s accent runs parallel to his social status. Once a wide-mouthed Yorkshire drawl, it softens into a Midwestern-inflected British English. In 56 Up, his teenage son couldn’t sound more American.

Tony, on the other hand, is Cockney through and through. As a boy, Tony aspired to be a jockey, but he wasn’t good enough to win races, so he put his mind to memorizing London’s streets and alleys and became a cab driver. Tony’s hustle runs so deep that at 14, he works at a dog-racing track, making the most of his small, athletic frame and loud voice to run through crowds of people and place bets for punters. It served him well: by 56, Tony’s bought a home in Essex and a vacation house in Spain, though his dream of opening a sports bar there is thwarted by the 2008 financial crisis.

For every Tony, there’s a Paul or a Symon. These two boys, who start the series in a children’s home, seem completely lost as young men. They don’t get very far professionally and lack the motivation and self-confidence to even try. Then, they enter relationships with strong-willed and decisive women who change everything for the better. Symon, who was never motivated by intellectual matters, lives for fostering abandoned children. Paul does odd jobs fixing up a retirement home in Australia and, by 56, has five grandkids. Both seem content; they talk less about money than about how much their wives have made them who they are.

***

By 56 Up, Apted’s filmmaking has retained its lucid, personal quality, but lost its critical edge. Instead of making a political point, 56 is an emotional, existential film about family, aging, and fulfillment. Bruce, the series’ only self-professed socialist, tones down his rhetoric as he gets older. John, the token Tory, talks mostly about his charity work in Bulgaria, where his mother’s family were once part of the ruling class. This doesn’t diminish the quality of the films or make them any less enjoyable, but it does alter their intended message somewhat.

If it’s hard to draw more incisive conclusions from Up, then perhaps that’s because of Apted’s choice of characters. There are only four girls in the series — something Apted himself has spoken of with some regret. A disproportionate number of the children end up at Oxbridge — the equivalent of taking a sample of American kids, and having almost a third of them go to an Ivy League school. There’s just one black kid, and no Asians or religious minorities.

Another reason Up falls short as political commentary is because pinning a society’s inequities onto the backs of a dozen kids and expecting them to perfectly reflect those ills sets up the project for failure. As Apted comes to realize, one person’s life is not a data point — at worst, it’s an irrelevant anecdote, and at best, it’s a metaphor. It would be a mistake to universalize the experiences of these 14 and hold them up as evidence of England’s failure to provide opportunities for all children.

That being said, the series hints at a number of socioeconomic trends that become particularly relevant to the next generation of characters — the childrens’ children. Tony and his wife take care of grandchildren that their daughter can’t raise. Paul’s daughter went to college and studied art history (a degree she doesn’t use at her job, naturally) while his son has five kids and is precariously employed, leaving Paul and his wife to take over when they’re needed. There were no “twentysomethings” in the original series — with the exception of Suzy, briefly, they all went straight from adolescence to adulthood. That’s not the case for their adult children, who, as Sue points out, are much more dependent on their parents than their generation was.

The very opportunities the original Up characters had seem to be fading, too. Will Sue’s daughters, who decide not to go to college, have a shot at the job their mother had — or will they end up working at Tesco? If tragedy or illness befalls Jackie’s boys, will they have a safety net to soften the blow?

It’s almost unthinkable today for someone in Jackie’s position to finish school and almost immediately get a mortgage — and it’s significant that in 2012, Jackie is living in public housing and fighting to hang on to her disability benefits, debilitated by chronic joint pain. It’s equally hard to imagine a young woman in Sue’s position marrying at 24, having a couple of kids, divorcing, and building a successful career as a university administrator without so much as setting foot in a college-level class; or even a modern-day Lynn, teaching disabled kids to read books without piles of debt and an advanced degree in child development.

Even Nick and Tony’s trajectories seem unlikely to be repeated by country boys or East End kids today. Universities in the U.S. are cutting back on teaching jobs and relying increasingly on part-time workers. Today’s Nick might be juggling several poorly compensated adjunct positions without the prospect of tenure or stability, or racking up debt to afford his rent. (Then again, a Nick might also choose to throw in the academic towel altogether and move to Silicon Valley.)

Tony, who exemplifies class mobility built on hard work and determination that politicians love to allude to, would likely struggle to get his start because of difficult economic conditions. He says himself that the taxi business isn’t doing as well as it used to, and that tourists are the ones that keep it going.

The kids of the rich kids will probably be fine — as their parents were, and their parents’ parents were. At the very least, their relative wealth and education will insulate them from future turmoil. But it’s no sure thing that the less wealthy will maintain their parents’ standard of living.

One can only hope that Up’s next generation of working-class children will win other lotteries — the lottery of brains, of resilience, of health, even of love — so that they, too, can have a shot at a good life.