Sunday, 20 May 2012

Seven Up!

In 1964, Michael Apted worked as a researcher and assistant producer on a documentary for Granada TV called Seven Up! The programme, broadcast in May of that year, took fourteen children from diverse backgrounds: Neil and Peter, from a state school in a middle-class suburb of Liverpool; Nick, from a small village in the Yorkshire Dales where he was the only pupil in the schoolhouse; Sue, Lynn, Jackie and Tony, from elementary schools in London’s East End; Symon and Paul, from a Barnardo’s children’s home in Middlesex; Bruce, from a boarding school in Hampshire; and Andrew, Charles, John and Suzy, from exclusive, fee-paying day schools in London. With the programme’s director, Paul Almond, Apted talked to the children about their lives, interests and aspirations, and solicited their views on class, money, race, the opposite sex and school life. They were then brought together to be filmed on a day out in London, when they were treated to a party and a trip to the zoo, and were left to their own devices in an adventure playground. The aim of the programme, according to the narrator Douglas Keay, was to test the Jesuit maxim, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,’ and to provide ‘a glimpse of England in the year 2000’. Although it was initially envisaged as a one-off, Apted has returned to the project in various formats every seven years, following the children through from adolescence to middle age in five additional films: Seven Plus Seven (1970), Twenty-One (1977), 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998), 49 Up (2005) and now 56 Up.

The introduction of lightweight 16mm film cameras and smaller, synchronous sound equipment in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the increasing speed of films which enabled most scenes to be filmed in natural light, allowed the documentarist to penetrate into previously unfilmable areas. These technological changes helped to create new forms of documentary-making in British Free Cinema, American Direct Cinema and French Cinéma Vérité, with an emphasis on location filming, spontaneity and intimacy rather than staged situations and didactic commentary.

Seven Up! was partly a product of these technological changes and their transition to television. The film offers unprecedented glimpses into the daily routines of children, albeit sometimes through reenactments. It shows Neil skipping down a suburban street in his duffle coat, and doing free movement to music in a PE lesson; Suzy surreptitiously scratching her nose in ballet class; John, Andrew and Charles singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in Latin; and Tony acting as milk monitor and being told off for turning round in a lesson. There are impressionistic snatches of children’s lives in the form of playground fights, skipping games, communal school dinners and the queue for Saturday morning pictures. In one scene, the camera even adopts Tony’s eye view as he moves across the schoolyard and into a line of pupils. The film thus attempts to use the new technological sophistication of documentary-making to examine children’s culture on its own terms, in the manner of Iona and Peter Opie’s influential book, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), which sees the initiation rites and secret languages of the playground as expressions of a tribal culture with its own hierarchies and meanings.

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