By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Those in the middle were the ones that got away, beneficiaries of successive post–World War II Labor governments that, to the horror of the Johns of this world, busily expanded the education system at all levels. There’s no denying the rigidity of the English schooling system, but there were holes in it, and oddly enough, it was the holes that allowed at least some bright children from the working and middle classes to break through into elite educations. Like Nick, who went to college and ended up a professor of engineering at a top United States university, I might have gotten thoroughly lost in one of Labor’s huge new egalitarian comprehensive schools, but flourished instead at a traditional grammar school and went on to London University. Still, had I not immigrated to America, land of opportunity and self-invention, I doubt whether I’d ever have become a writer in Britain, where in my day, media careers were strictly for the WASPs.
If the Up series began as a study in British social determinism, over the years it has turned into a chronicle of a rapidly changing England, for better and worse. The rich remain rich, but their arrogant contempt for all who sit below the salt has dropped away. At 14, John’s highest ambitions were for fame and power; now his parliamentary dreams have (almost) fallen away, and along with his wife, he administers a charity that helps the disadvantaged in Bulgaria. Noblesse oblige, undoubtedly, but we like him all the better for it, and he gets off the most potent existential line in the movie: “Who wants to be the richest corpse in the graveyard?”
None of the working-class kids remains in poverty. Easygoing Sue now administers the M.A. program of a large college. Tony, a charming blowhard whose appetite for the spotlight makes him, of all the group, the only likely candidate for one of Britain’s many cheerfully down-market reality shows, still works alongside his wife as a cabby, though he occasionally moonlights as a television actor. A grandfather, he’s also bought a lavish house in Spain and plans to retire there. The only subject to make himself available for interviews, Tony e-mailed me from London, where he was getting ready to fly to New York for the premiere of 49 Up: “If you would have told me as a kid that I would own a house in Spain, I would have thought you must be mad. Our family never had a dime to spend, but through hard work and determination, my dream came true.”
Amusingly, Tony regards London’s East End, a way station for immigrants for centuries (my mother grew up there in the 1920s, when the borough was predominantly Jewish and Catholic), as his personal fiefdom, and England as a mirror of his own kind. Less amusingly, his decision to leave was influenced by the presence of “other cultures” (these days, mostly Bangladeshi in his neighborhood).
“The English way of life has changed,” he wrote me, echoing sentiments he expresses in 49 Up. “I am a traditionalist, and my traditions are being erased by all the politics of political correctness, and it drives me mad.” That this is virtually the only time racial anxieties really come up in the series is a measure of how anachronistic the Upsters are now (only one of them, Simon, is nonwhite) in a society where, as in all of Western Europe, ethnicity is rapidly overlaying or eclipsing social class as the salient social divide. It will doubtless show up in a new 7 Up series, launched in 2000 by Granada, that has yet to be shown in the United States.
Plugging away with the class card, Apted often seems to be flogging a half-dead horse, but even he acknowledges that this once self-fulfilling prophecy has “grown out of itself into something more universal. The social system has loosened up a bit.” And, along with it, his questions, which grow more personal (sometimes too personal — in an earlier episode, when he asked a visibly distressed Neil whether he ever thought he was going mad, I wanted to slug him), more focused on love, family and relationships — the areas that matter most to his interview subjects.
Not that they don’t resent the intrusion. And as they close in on 50, some have come to feel that the series has typecast them as symbols of class, or that it keeps bringing up painful issues they’d rather not revisit. (We boomers fondly imagine we pioneered mass divorce, but one of the sadder surprises of the series is how many of the Upsters, and not just the working-class ones, come from broken families.) Suzy, once so awkward and now so soft and round and comfortable at last in her own skin, announces her intention of bowing out, even though, as Apted has told her repeatedly, she’s a star in the eyes of many viewers. To John, who, like others, has dipped in and out of attendance, the show is “every seven years, a little pill of poison,” and he openly admits he sees his participation in 49 Up as potential publicity for his charity organization. Simon cheerfully tells Apted that most mornings “I wake up hating you.”
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