Friday, June 14, 2019

Getting on

Another seven years have passed, and 63 Up was as fascinating and affecting as the previous installments - if not even more so. Where once the participants were looking forwards with their whole lives ahead of them, this time they were predominantly looking back or (in the case of Nick and Lynn) facing up to their own mortality. Over the duration of the series there has been something profoundly devastating about watching childhood hopes and dreams get slowly crushed or fade away  - but that has been counterbalanced by the way in which most of them appear to have managed to make the most of things, carve out a niche for themselves and find a measure of happiness or at least contentment.

When the experiment began, in 1956, director Michael Apted's intention was to compare and contrast children from different backgrounds as a way of illuminating or illustrating the consequences of the rigid British class system. In that respect, he has succeeded; some participants have been constrained by the circumstances into which they were born, whereas those with privileged backgrounds have evidently benefited enormously. One of the latter, Andrew, claimed that we now live in a meritocracy in which achievements are more important than birth as a determinant of success - a rather smug comment that ignored the very real social inequalities that still exist today.

As a viewer, there were times when you found yourself passing subconscious, silent judgement on the people that the participants have become and the choices that they've made. If it was discomforting enough to acknowledge that, then it was significantly more painful to consider your own life (as the programme implicitly invited you to do) - to cringe at the thought of what your former self might have said on camera and, perhaps even worse, at the knowledge that there is still some of that person in you.

What's more, since the programme last aired, in 2012, I've become a dad. The way in which it continued to bear out the motto "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man" was faintly terrifying in its reminder of the incredible responsibility of parenthood - and that, even at the age of six, our son's character and future may already be largely mapped out.

One final observation on a landmark documentary series that underscores the fact that there is no such thing as an ordinary life: is it simply coincidence that such a high proportion of the participants have ended up working in education in some capacity (Bruce and Peter as schoolteachers, Nick as a university professor, Sue in university administration, Lynn as a children's librarian), or did their involvement in the programme and having to regularly reflect on their upbringing, development, prospects and hopes for the future subtly influence their choice of career? A question for Apted to put to them in 70 Up, perhaps.

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