TV's first reality show (and it's still going after 49 years)
21:48 GMT, 11 May 2012
A lot can happen in life in seven years. Equally, not a lot can happen too. This is Sue Davis’s dilemma.
‘When you actually sit down and think, “What has changed in my life in seven years” sometimes you get a bit of a shock. This time seven years ago, I seemed on the verge of something big. I’d settled down with a new partner, Glenn, after years of being a single mum. There was talk of us getting married. But have we No! We haven’t got round to it. I’ve found myself wondering if there’s time to squeeze a wedding in, just so it looks like I’ve actually been doing something.’
It’s a dilemma Sue has been struggling with since she was seven, and one of the children selected to take part in a programme charting the hopes and fears of a group of British school children.
Current day: Jackie, Lynn and Sue, with photos of their younger selves
The show, called Seven Up!, was never designed as a long-running venture, but it proved so popular that the programme makers returned to the subjects when they were 14, again when they were 21, and so on. And now they’re 56. ‘Which is as shocking for us as it is for people who’ve been watching us over all these years,’ admits Sue.
Seven Up! – based on the motto, ‘Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man’ – was a truly ground-breaking piece of television. It’s still impossible to watch the very first series, which is full of little boys with dreams of being astronauts and jockeys, without welling up. Discovering what happened to them, and that the life paths have included homelessness, heartache and disappointment, is yet more affecting.
The 14 children who took part in the first programme were chosen in a very deliberate attempt to represent different social classes in the 1960s, with plummy-voiced public school boys (one of whom declared that he liked to read the Financial Times), being pitched against street-wise Cockney kids. ‘Why do we get these children together’ asked the voice at the start of the programme. ‘Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The union leader and the business executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.’
The trio in 1985 for 28 UP holding a picture of themselves aged 21
Sue – gap-toothed and cute as pie – was one of three friends at an East London primary school chosen, presumably, to represent the more gritty side of British life. Has her life panned out like producers expected Well, she certainly hasn’t done badly. Although her first marriage didn’t work out, and she had to struggle for years as a single mother, she now has a managerial job at a London university. She’s moved out of the East End to leafy Essex and owns her own home.
It's also not easy to watch yourself age
in a matter of minutes on screen. We laugh at the outfits and the
hairdos, but it's a jolt to notice the wrinkles developing…
She says herself that life has been kinder to her than it has to some of the other children. But it’s still a huge deal to open your (‘very ordinary’, in her words) life up to the world. ‘I have mixed feelings about it when it comes round to the time the cameras are due back. It’s a mixture of fear and excitement. Sometimes I think it would be easier not to do it, but I know I’d miss it. It’s kind of part of me, for better or worse.’
Not all the subjects feel the same. Suzy Lusk, first filmed at boarding school, took part until 49 Up, when she said she didn’t plan to be in any more. Charles Furneaux, one of the prep-school boys, went on to become a journalist but chose not to appear after 21 Up, and at one point threatened to sue producers when they refused to remove his face from archive sequences. But those who have agreed to take part in 56 Up have, between them, pretty much seen and done it all.
Cab driver Tony Walker
They number a nuclear physicist, a
country singer and a taxi driver. Tony Walker – who wanted to be a
jockey – ended up driving cabs but moonlighting as a TV extra. The
series producer, Michael Apted, once revealed that he thought Tony would
end up in jail. On the last programme, however, he had two homes,
including a holiday villa in Spain.
Apted, 71, who was a researcher on the
very first programme, and went on to direct the Bond film The World Is
Not Enough, returns to see the participants every seven years, staying
for a few days and filming them in their home. Sue’s children William,
30, and Kathryn, 27, don’t like the intrusion. ‘They never want to be
involved, but I always convince them to be a part, if only in a small
way. My family are the most important thing in my life so to not have
them represented there would be terrible.’
Sue looks forward to watching each
instalment in the same way other viewers do. ‘I’m excited to find out
what’s happening with the others. Mostly we don’t know each other, and
only meet up every seven years to watch the programme before it goes
out. I’m in touch with Jackie and Lynn – who were at my primary school –
and we exchange Christmas cards. But I feel connected to them all, even
though our lives are very different.’
The whole premise of the series revolves
around class, and whether it was a barrier to success. What’s Sue’s
view ‘I think it’s quite surprising. You don’t look at what has
happened to some of the very privileged children and think, “They had it
better”. Sometimes there was a lot of unhappiness there. What it taught
me was that the grass is never greener. I’m glad I had my life.’
UP SERIES: FACT FILE
The number of viewers who tuned in to watch 35 Up – the fifth in the series – when it was broadcast in 1991
The position the Up series was voted in 2005 in a poll of the 50 Greatest Documentaries
She’s proud of being involved in a show that very much predates the reality TV phenomenon, and is perhaps the most real of them all. And she points out that it has offered her some opportunities. ‘Michael does invite us to functions and events, so I’ve been on a James Bond set because of him – and even kissed Pierce Brosnan.’
But there are obvious horrors involved with having your life charted on TV. ‘With every programme, they show clips from previous ones which means that the daft things you said as a 21-year-old – and they’re always daft at that age – haunt you forever. It’s also not easy to watch yourself age in a matter of minutes on screen. We laugh at the outfits and the hairdos, but it’s a jolt to notice the wrinkles developing.’
How long can this amazing series go on for Sue laughs about being filmed in a zimmer frame, well into her nineties. ‘The amazing thing is we haven’t lost anyone yet because of death. But that will come, and I don’t know what happens when it does. The other issue is that Michael is so closely associated with it, what will happen when he’s no longer around
‘I can’t really foresee a situation where I wouldn’t want to keep doing this. It’s a part of my life now, like brushing my teeth. And if something mega happened, like a lottery win, I don’t think it would change anything. Except that I’d be filmed in a bigger house, with a view of the sea.’
56 Up, Monday, 9pm, ITV1.