When Granada Television debuted the documentary special Seven Up! as an episode of World in Action on May 5, 1964, the primary point was to show a brief look at youth of varied social backgrounds around the UK. It was a study of sorts, but as original director Paul Almond told me last year, “All I wanted to do was to find out what little boys and little girls of different classes thought about. I didn’t have any intention other than trying to find out what in fact were the differences.”
The show itself plainly states that the idea is to show viewers “the shop steward and the executive” of tomorrow, specifically that of the turn of the next century. Perhaps one follow-up in the year 2000 would have sufficed to update us on where those kids wound up. Instead, by that year there’d already been five installments, produced and released at seven-year intervals, and since then there have been two more.
“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” says the Jesuit motto that inspired the program, and it implies that we don’t need to see anything beyond those kids at age 7. The men (and women) are all right there for us to know as children, apparently. That doesn’t mean we aren’t curious about and fascinated by the certainty of knowing more, of seeing how people turn out. We were the same species half a century ago as we are now in the age of “Where Are They Now” features all over the Internet.
Back in 1964, however, there wasn’t a lot of that nostalgia culture just yet. The first TV series reunion special (at least the one recognized as such) wasn’t aired until the following year, with The Danny Thomas TV Family Reunion. And that was in America, and television wasn’t so compatible between here and there 50 years ago. But there were more Danny Thomas Show reunions in 1967 and 1969. Dragnet wasn’t just revisited but revived as a series in 1967. And The Dick Van Dyke Show had its own reunion special in 1969. Viewers were more and more interested in finding out what became of their favorite TV characters.
It’s hard to imagine the UK didn’t have its own equivalents ahead of the U.S., given that they were watching TV in Britain long before most Americans were. But their structure for TV series is very different. The closest thing I can find of relevance from before 1971 is the revival of a sitcom called Steptoe and Son, which returned in early 1970 after going off the air originally in 1965. Brits also may not have been familiar with Germany’s The Children of Golzow, which started randomly revisiting a group of children initially presented in 1961 and already on four installments throughout the decade before Seven Up! received its own first “reunion special.”
Whether or not there was a local precedent for Granada to decide to follow up with the kids from Seven Up!, what began with the December 1970 airing of 7 Plus Seven (aka 14 Up, for those who need consistency in titling) became the most popular and famous of a kind of series of event documentaries. Michael Apted, taking over from Almond with that second program (he was an assistant on the first), has stuck with the idea. And so have most of the original subjects, surprisingly, with only a few either bailing temporarily or permanently.
The Up Series, as we call it, has spawned or influenced copycats around the world, including one in Australia that was started and is continued by Gillian Armstrong, one in the U.S. produced by Apted and a new British incarnation begun by the BBC in 2000 (speaking of which, 21 Up 2000 should be due this year). While there have been some interesting narratives along the way, after eight installments these docs are more and more just “Where Are They Now?” specials, and the longer a series like this goes, the more invested the audience is and so the more desiring of these regular updates they become.
But while for decades it could easily be an institution, especially for fans in the UK, in the modern age it’s remarkable that it can continue as something we find to be necessary. After all, a “Where Are the Subjects of the Up Series Now?” article might do some of the job. We also have social media and other 24/7 means of being alerted to things that maybe we couldn’t have ever known outside of the Up documentaries themselves. At least Tony is on Twitter, and you can follow The Good Intentions, the band Peter returned to the series to promote, on Facebook. There have also been interviews with Neil and Nick (and I’m sure others) in the press outside and beyond the doc series.
There’s something about today’s social keep-up culture, however, that also makes the Up series as significant as it was prescient. Facebook may have led to a decrease in high school reunion attendance, but it hasn’t killed it, and in some cases it has helped organizers in finding and wooing alumni. Meanwhile, celebrity personality twitter accounts hasn’t killed those celebrities’ for-profit endeavors. And similarly the greater ability to keep tabs on some of the Up characters hasn’t kept fans from wanting to see them all in the usual Up doc structure and setting. If anything, the Internet has helped awareness and interest in the series, mainly via Netflix streaming the whole series now and again.
Case in point, ratings in the UK for the TV airings of 56 Up in 2012 were very high, on par with the previous installment, and it also performed really well over here. The U.S. box office take for the latest was $701k compared to 49 Up‘s $242k and 42 Up‘s $301k (however, it was less than 35 Up‘s $923k in 1992). It was also one of the 10 highest-grossing indie nonfiction films of 2013, according to Indiewire.
Could Seven Up! and the rest of the Up series happen today, though? That’s a weird question, because in a way it does exist just in different forms. The Up series was a kind of reality TV before reality TV existed. Today it would simply be a series and its follow-ups would likely come much sooner — the first being the obligatory reunion episode at the end of a season, if it was on Bravo. The Up docs are pretty simple in their relative lack of drama outside of what’s told retrospectively in the interviews, so it probably wouldn’t become all that popular. It definitely wouldn’t become anything of note on the level that the Up series has.
As for feature films, we do tend to see more documentary sequels today, and with the rise of the autobiographical documentarian some whole careers are like personal Up series all their own — see the work of Ross McElwee and Doug Block, in particular, the latter of whom has a new non-autobiographical “Where Are They Now?” type doc called 112 Weddings, where he returns to interview couples whose weddings he shot a while back as a videographer. Now we also see more films that fit what would be the first few installments of an Up series into one movie, including the recent documentary American Promise and Richard Linklater’s upcoming drama Boyhood, which took 12 years to make.
The Up series is set to continue as long as the currently 73-year-old Apted is alive, and he’s already vocally committed to 62 Up if he sticks around. The same goes for the subjects, I assume. It’s just a matter of life, though, that one of the 14 originals will die at some point between films — and we’ll hear about it in the news before the next doc makes mention of it. In both cases I expect we’ll keep hearing about the characters in general even if a third director doesn’t pick up the series after Apted. The saddest thing right now is that Roger Ebert, easily the greatest champion of the series here in the U.S., will not be around to see (and review) the next installment.
If another director did want to continue (or if Apted is somehow still working into his 100s, like Manoel de Oliveira), the Up series could very well have another 40 years at least ahead of it, so long as at least one of the 13 regulars is still alive and capable of talking. It’s gone on this long, showing us 12 years beyond its year of interest and 49 years more than is said to be required to know the man (or woman), so why not almost double in time? And that’s not even counting how much the Up series will last as it stands. Give me a documentary series until it is 50 and I will give you the nonfiction landmark still in its infancy. There’s much more to see from these people, and many generations to see them, too.