Tuesday, January 23, 2007

49 Up

The latest installment in the "7 Up" series has come out on DVD. "7 Up" was meant as a one-off when Granada Television profiled a group of 7 year olds in Britain in 1964. The kids were drawn from different classes, and the first show was fairly heavy handed in its socialist critique of the British class structure.

Then they did a follow up at 14. And another at 21. The class critique began to fall away, while the stories of the people came to the fore. By 28 most had married and started to have kids. 35 had a strong theme of parents dying, and the next generation stepping up to full responsibility. Some were divorcing, too. The subjects themselves began to be so famous for being in this series that their resentment of the disruption of their lives starts to come into the documentary as a theme.

"42 Up" seemed to me a turning point. Up to this point, the story was mainly about fulfilling youthful promise – including the opportunities and limits that their initial class position created. Their stories at 42, though, were more about realization. A few still had major turning points coming. The happiest part of that episode was that the nicest guy befriended the most troubled guy, and helped him get on his feet. The nicest guy also got married just before the 42-year-old revisit by the camera crew.

At 49, quite a few are grandparents, especially those who started in the working class. Michael Apted, the director, asks most of them about the effect of class on their lives. He agrees with the general consensus that they have transcended class, or at least the old class structure. The former East Enders had moved out, succeeded by Asian and Caribbean families who changed all the landmarks of the old working-class citadel.

The theme that I noticed this time was that those who stayed married were notably better off than the others, especially financially. Several of them, notably Tony, clearly teetered on the brink of divorce in earlier episodes. Some had divorced, and went on to make second marriages or partnerships that were pretty good. But the losses to divorce run through the whole story. At 49, a good moment for stock-taking, marriage mattered as much as class in how their lives were turning out.

I think the "7 Up" series is the greatest sociological documentary ever made. In Roger Ebert's interview with Michael Apted on the DVD, Apted, who will be about 70 when the time for "56 Up" comes around, worries that he will die long before all the participants do, or before they all refuse to participate any more. I am a few years younger than the subjects of these films, so I have always found them personally helpful as a glimpse into my own future. I hope, with Apted, that someone will carry the project out to its conclusion – to "98 Up."


Anonymous said...

I just learned about the "Up" series last summer, and was eagerly awaiting 49 Up - and was not disappointed.

I also noticed the stabilizing influence of marriage. Susan, especially, seemed as though her life was in disarray & she would never marry (at 21) and then was happy and on-course -- and married -- at 28.

I came away with a different sense of the influence of class. Although Tony became financially comfortable, the three girls from the East End had greater struggles. Two of the 3 did divorce. The working class family of the early 1950s had strong gender roles; as the young women came of age, those roles disappeared. Without education, they had few career paths and no model on which to build family life.

So - I think there was an interaction between social class and probability of divorce. Those who stayed married were indeed happier; they also had financial and educational resources that helped them stay married, and to cope with life's stresses.

It is one of the greatest projects I've seen done; I hope someone can take it up for Michael Apted.

Gruntled said...

True. And the two East End girls who did spend a long time as single mothers could do so because of the dole, which multiplied the effect of the collapse of working class marriages in Britain even more than it did here.