Joan Wickersham

A study of class captures shape, sweep of real lives

Jackie, Sue, and Lynn as seen in “49 Up,” a 2005 British film that is part of a decades-long series of documentaries.
Jackie, Sue, and Lynn as seen in “49 Up,” a 2005 British film that is part of a decades-long series of documentaries.

This summer, my husband and I and our 18-year-old son have been watching a group of children grow up. When we first encountered them a few weeks ago, they were 7 years old. Now they are 49. We’ve seen them at play and in school, seen them get taller and finish school or drop out, find jobs, lose jobs, fall in love, and marry and have children of their own. We’ve listened to them talk about their hopes and ambitions, and we’ve watched them achieve and fall short of their goals.

These children are the subjects of English director Michael Apted’s massive, decades-long documentary series, which started in 1964 with the film
“Seven Up.” (Apted began as a researcher on the first film and stepped into the director’s role with the second.) The first film profiles 14 7-year-olds, representing a cross section of English geography and class. There are kids from London’s working-class East End, from a remote Yorkshire farm, and from a Liverpool suburb. There are two boys separated from their families and living in a children’s group home. There are several children from the upper-middle and upper classes: a boy at a harsh boarding school; a cosseted schoolgirl; and three unintentionally hilarious posh Londoners who sit on a couch boasting about following their shares in the “Financial Times,” and reeling off the names of the schools and universities which Mummy has already determined they will attend.

But as the series continues to check in with its subjects at seven-year intervals, what began as a study of class turns into a portrait of individual lives. What happens to the little boy who wants to become a missionary? Or the child raised in a group home who, when asked if he’d like to get married when he grows up, concludes earnestly that the answer is no, because a wife might try to serve him greens and he doesn’t like greens? Someone who is miserable at 14 and 21 may be surprisingly content at 28. A marriage that’s looked rocky through several installments might smooth out in middle age; or the opposite may occur: an apparently compatible partnership ruptures somewhere between “42 Up” and “49 Up.”


The “Up” series was reality TV before there was reality TV. But this is not stagey, trivial, should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-get-a-manicure reality. The “Up” series concerns itself with the overall sweep and shape of real lives. Who is better off — those born with money and privilege, or those born without? Who actually has more choices? How much do class, race, politics, education, personality, and chance affect where people — and their children — end up? And what does “end up” really mean, when individual lives, and the world, are constantly changing?

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Watching these movies makes you think about big social questions. It is interesting, in an election year, to contemplate the impact that public education and social welfare can have on people’s lives. Some of the film’s subjects are “on the dole” (i.e. welfare), while others have inherited enormous wealth and privilege. Having seen them grow up, you’re aware that no one in fact is entirely self-sufficient; we are all shaped in some way by what we get or don’t get from our parents and from society.

In editing each film, the filmmakers don’t have the usual documentary perspective of hindsight or foreshadowing. Occasionally there’s a moment that feels like a happy ending — a wedding, a great new job. Wow, you think, so it all turned out OK. But then you realize that we don’t know where anyone’s life is going to go next, and the filmmakers don’t know either. These lives, like the series, are works in progress.

“56 Up” aired recently on British television but has not yet been released in the United States. So for now we have to leave these people at 49, when many of them have raised children, and some are even grandparents. It’s been poignant for me to watch the series with my husband, whom I’ve known since we were both teenagers, and our son who is about to leave for college. These films make you realize that life is both short and long, and give you the sense that you are seeing it whole — these lives, your life, every life.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her new book, “The News From Spain,’’ will be published in the fall.