“Seven Up!”, “63 Up” and D-Day +75

They did rather well didn’t they? The Granada TV company, often a trail-blazer, wittily turned its 1964 World in Action special Seven UP! into a seven-yearly snapshot of a cohort of kids who were seven year-olds in the phoney revolution of the Beetles, lifestyle Sunday colour supplements, and Swingin’ London.

 But who did well? This week we saw perhaps the last really large anniversarial thanksgiving for the service given by the cohort born in the mid-1920s as they revisited the Normandy beaches as revered heroes of D-Day, 1944. It isn’t fair to ask if ITV’s post-war Baby Boomers match up to their parents’ generation since an existential national threat didn’t come along on their watch. But it is poignant and pertinent to see what we make of a generation who have known mostly peace and prosperity, and much more of both – especially the latter – than was meted out to any earlier generation. That we have the chance is largely due to the foresight of Sir Denis Forman, the battle-scarred WW2 veteran who was guiding Grenada’s programming.

There are glaring weaknesses in the TV series. The first is that it was set up and to some extent has remained a caricature of the extremes of English society. We are not by international standards amazingly class-ridden nor stuck in social immobility. But by mining for young participants in London’s chummy East End and in the plummy preparatory schools of southern England the documentary makers brilliantly played to these dodgy old tropes. Secondly, as one or two participants have insisted to the show’s long-serving director Michael Apted on-camera, the focus of the show’s interrogation was on apron-strings for the girls and class and career for the boys.

Never mind all that for a bit. At many moments across the 55 years we have known these kids, they been able to make us laugh and cry, and mostly in sympathy for their efforts to examine their own lives in what always looked like honesty. They responded to the show’s Jesuit proposition that the followers of Ignatius de Loyola could form a person by the age of seven. The working class and upper middle class boys, and the few in between, all seem to acknowledge that they were and remain insecure and bottled-up (or locked in cheeky-chappy deflection).

However, they mostly added that their wives or other women had opened them up a bit in adulthood. Several participants across class and gender had in adulthood found spiritual, creative or emotional outlets: singing, song-writing, Japanese gardening, running in the woods come to mind as examples. Several were important contributors to civil society: foster parents, a councillor and lay preacher, a library outreach worker, a charity chairman all went beyond the call of family life and ordinary duty. We did not see, what apparently happened: one participant showing active compassion to another who was in trouble.

To return, though, to the major lacuna in the show’s premise and more importantly to a serious gap in some of the participants’ approach to life. Contrary to the show’s stratified way of looking at the world, we saw the great merit of modern affluence. True, too many of the seven year olds were now wilfully stout and presumably dangerously sloppy in their eating habits. But we seemed to be seeing working class people whose life-styles which were unrecognisably more pleasant than their parents’ or grandparents’, who themselves had seen a good deal of progress. We also saw one or two working class women who had leapt into the world of management and social entrepreneurship, though at least one of them stuck resolutely though unrealistically, and one might say regrettably, to the view that she remained working class.

The very bad news, I think, was that we also saw abundant evidence that the post-WW2 generation of working class people – boys especially – was the first really to wilfully avoid the chance to get a broad, challenging education. We saw, and it was fascinating, some evidence of in-between youngsters rocketing into higher education and, in one case, into academia. One of them pointed out that the show had wilfully ignored the social mobility side of his story. And we saw one middle class boy succeed educationally and devote himself for several years to extending an educational hand to the less fortunate. Both these stories were typical of many of their generation. But so too was the obdurate and continuing reluctance of many of the white working class, and even of many of the new more-or-less middle class, to liberate themselves.

Responding to the Jesuit proposition in a slightly different sense to the one above, most participants thought that the lineament of their character in 63 Up was visible from Seven Up! onward. But several seemed also to stress that what they had made of their lives was partly a matter of their private family background and their own choices. This nicely swam against the left’s view that everything is The System’s fault. This is surely the right way to review one’s life, but it is worth noting that a major force in the post-war world was precisely the social and political experiment – the vaunted revoltuion – revolution which was supposed to make The System deliberately more powerful and muscularly benign.  

It was the men and women who restored Europe to freedom who were the parents of the children we first saw in Seven Up! and have now seen in 63 Up. It was the choices made by the 1920s generation who spawned the 1950s generation and they made a patchy job of them, one might say. Educationally, we could probably have done with a few more demanding Jesuits. The D-Day generation mostly fell for a socialist welfare state which wasted a huge opportunity to build an even more interesting society than we have. The generation born in 1980s have some fabulous choices to make. The Queen spoke in Southsea this week of the resilience of her generation which has persisted but was on most spectacular display in June 1944. Seventy-five years on, the 1980s generation now face a Sartrian existential crisis: what sort of state and public discourse will build resilient persons fit for the freedoms won in Normandy?  

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Publication date

08 June 2019