Last week saw a significant moment in TV programming when ITV broadcast the latest in the legendary series 'Seven Up', namely '63 Up'. Michael Apted began first as a researcher, then later director, tracking 14 seven-year-olds in 1964 and has subsequently returned to them every seven years since.
Over the past 55 years one of the 14 has died (Lynn) and two have withdrawn, leaving us with 11 people who contributed to the current edition of this bold experiment in broadcasting and social history. '63 Up' is reality TV in its true meaning rather than the self-declared 'faux reality TV' of the likes of 'Big Brother' and 'Love Island'. The series tells us many things about not just the individuals in question and their lives, but wider society. A soft, unstated idealism – or perhaps more accurately, a sense of public duty and care – informs the entire series to this day and is present in the current installment.
The 'Seven Up' series has a respect and humanity sadly rare in today's TV. There is a trust and set of deeply embedded relationships between Apted and his interview subjects. The central characters who give the programme its purpose and uniqueness are shown a degree of respect and affection which is a rare commodity in the increasingly harsh, exploitative world of reality TV.
There are observations about how society has changed. Sue, a university administrator states: 'I see homeless people all the time… My generation had wonderful support from the council, which got me on the ladder and changed my life. People are struggling now'. Tony, a London taxi driver now hit by Uber, throughout the series has been a cheeky chappie with an ebullient character: 'I'm cheeky, I play the joker, but I'm a decent citizen'. Predictably, with age comes illness and Nick, who had become a successful physics academic, facing the grim realities of throat cancer, reflected that: 'I'm focused on fairly short-term futures at the moment'.
There have been many defining moments over the years. There is the defining scene of John, Andrew and Charles, the three privately educated boys sitting together at the age of seven singing 'Waltzing Matilda' in Latin, and identifying their future life choices: Charterhouse, Trinity College, Eton, Cambridge and Oxford, which turned out to be nearly completely accurate. But the series dug behind such perceptions and patterns. One of the most powerful was provided by Nick, who went to Aberdeen and dropped out. In '28 Up', he is seen walking the rural roads of the West of Scotland in the cold and rain – he's homeless and carrying his possessions in two suitcases. Fast forward to '49 Up' and despite all his difficulties, he became a Lib Dem councillor, which he still is in the current programme.
This is a profoundly English story: all 14 of the original participants were English-based, chosen from a few areas, with a concentration around London with a cluster from East London. Much of the content is translatable to a British canvas, but obviously not everything considering the reality of how divided the UK is economically, socially and politically. Scotland only appears as a backdrop in the current programmes as an occasional escape and bolt hole, although one participant, Jackie, has now lived in Glasgow for a number of years.
The stories of participants show how society has changed over the intervening years. Some embody the experiences of privilege – pre-set and predictable from youth – but made more human by being told in person. Then there are those who struggle, face hardship, financial and domestic disasters, and find it difficult to keep going.
Most of the series are made up of people falling between these two poles – the inbetweeners of the middle and working class who have a profession or secure job and decent income, but are not massively affluent. Their rich and layered lifestories are given pride of place. We hear how people navigate the slings and arrows, and inevitable disappointments, and joys, of life.
The many challenges which life throws at people appear in its numerous guises: health, illness, financial security and insecurity, employment choices and outcomes, bringing up children, partners and long-term relationships, break-ups, the issue of commitment and what love is.
All these factors and others together paint a vivid picture of England. Class is here, and how could it not be with one of the opening premises of the series in 1964 being that a child's future life was mostly predicted by social class and background by age seven. 'It was about class in the beginning,' said cameraman George Jesse Turner, who has worked on the series from the outset, 'but it was not done scientifically, in the way it would be now'.
Gender is prevalent as well and the changing role of men and women, in work, family and society: although only four of the original 14 were women (and with Lynn dying and Suzy not taking part, '63 Up' was a bit of a blokefest). Sexuality is mostly unstated and unexplored, with no openly gay, lesbian or bisexual participants. Ethnicity and multiculturalism has been sadly neglected, with only one BAME participant. As important and telling have been the silences and omissions, with as Apted candidly admitting 'the feminist revolution' mostly passing him by in relation to the 'Seven Up' series.
Politics is more often than not only implicit mentioned, but much of what politics is really about is here – the meaning and manifestations of power, choice and opportunity, both individually and collectively. 'It's political, but not in a didactic way,' comments Claire Lewis, executive producer of the series since '28 Up'. Rather, she says: 'It's conversational, the way normal people talk to each other'.
Brexit is the major exception to this in '63 Up', with several of the individuals lamenting the nature and consequences of the decision. Tony provides the rare example of a Brexit voter, but even he expresses his doubts about the whole thing given the resulting mess. There is anger and incomprehension, for example, towards David Cameron (for his calling of a referendum and walking away), along with a lament for the European dream that has turned sour, at least in some places.
All of this throws up questions about how we think of Scotland and the widespread conceit of egalitarianism that pervades much of society and politics. 'Seven Up' illuminates the importance of the lived experience of class, status and inequality, and the cul-de-sac of those voices on the left who pore scorn and ridicule on such perspectives because they don't have the right grandiose left theory. It shows the limitations of the often invoked abstracts of 'class' and 'nation', and how, in the caricatured way they are often presented, they don't take you very far, unless deeply embedded in everyday life.
'63 Up' points to the obvious lack of such equivalent programmes or research in Scotland. On the latter, Scottish Social Attitudes at times have provided broad findings but little to no in-depth qualitative findings. We literally don't know what people here mean when they use terms like 'working class' and 'middle class' because no-one has asked people in any meaningful, structured way.
Where have been the equivalent, or nearest equivalent, programmes on Scotland to '63 Up'? If the answer is that there have been none, why haven't we been able to create and execute something similar? And what would such a set of stories look like and tell us?
A Scottish series like 'Seven Up' would tell us stories at either end of the spectrum: of privilege and serious poverty. More critically, it would frame the voices and journeys of the experience of the vast majority: inbetweener Scotland – the huge swathe of the country that was born working class, then entered middle-class employment, but mostly still define themselves as working class. This group we know are the reason that, over the last 40 years in objective employment termsm Scotland has become a more middle-class society, while subjectively, it has become more working class as an identity and choice.
Any such account would portray a Scotland that is not one-dimensional or just about politics, the constitutional question, or football. It would be about the many other things in life that make us what we are – individually and collectively. It would not try and force us into one set of identities or one dominant story to the exclusion of others. It would not portray the Scotland of a single story. Rather we would portray the rich, complex mosaic of who we are and our humanity in all its different forms. If the 'Seven Up' series now seems to have come from an earlier age of daring and imaginative broadcasting, we have even more to reflect on what has been wonderful about this series, and what could be done in a similar spirit in today's very different age.
There are many different layers to this 56-year-old series. One is that director Michael Apted, now aged 78, and with a real sense of the passing of time, wants to do an '84 Up' when he'll be 99, underlining that at some point even this series has to end. Another is that of changing media and broadcasting, and their role in social documentary and history. For all our 24/7 media, beyond vox pops and reality TV, the voices of everyday people are rarely centrestage in most media and public life, and certainly not in focusing on the big issues.
The most profound strand running through the 'Seven Up' series is that it showcases the transitory, fragile and precious qualities which make up what it is to be human, and how this has expressed itself from the 1960s onward. It locates the individual and the self, and aspiration and life journeys into something bigger that makes the series something profound and poignant. 'Seven Up' has helped enrich our lives, reflect on what has been gained and lost, what we value and miss over the past five and a half decades, and makes us wonder how we will assess the present and future.