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’56 Up’ documentary boasts wisdom

In 1964, a British television special called “7 Up!” profiled a group of 7-year-olds, interviewing them about their present lives and their dreams for the future. Every seven years since, the filmmakers have returned to check in on them. They’re now 56, and the stars of “56 Up.”

As far as I’m concerned this is the greatest documentary series in the history of movies. A huge hit in Britain for the last half-century, the dozen or so subjects have all become mini-celebrities in the United Kingdom.

Since the film “28 Up” was released in the United States almost 30 years ago, they’ve also become well-known here – as many of us have followed their lives through 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up, and now 56 Up.

The premise of the original series was the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” The original idea was to test the notion of Britain’s class system – the filmmakers selected some children from the upper classes, some from the lower classes, some from orphanages, some from the suburbs and some from rural England.

“I think it’s not a bad idea to pay for school because if we didn’t, schools would be so nasty and crowded,” said one child in their interviews at 7 years old.

“What would you do if you had lots of money?” asked another child.

Responded one, “I would help the poor.”

“The poor?!”

At seven, every one of them is so lively and refreshingly unselfconscious about their ambitions for themselves.

They talk of marriage and children and the jobs they expect to have when they grow up. By the time they’re 14, most of them are, unsurprisingly, very self-conscious about everything – in sometimes painful and sometimes humorous ways. By 21, personal relationships, education, and jobs predominate. By 28, the pathways of their lives seem laid out before them.

And by age 56, many of these subjects’ lives have ended up fairly predictable or “typical” in retrospect. But the important thing is that none of them felt that way as they were being lived.

Most all of them got married, had kids – one even has a grandkid – and about half of them got divorced. And a couple of them have lived surprisingly unpredictable lives.

One can’t help but compare one’s own life at these various stages to our subjects’ lives. But there’s one big difference – these subjects have had to wrestle with and reflect on living their lives in public. Over the years, three have dropped out of the project at various times, but only one has remained a holdout. Most of them have resigned themselves to their moments of fame every seven years.

“My ambition is a scientist is to be more famous for science than for being in this film. But unfortunately, it’s not going to happen,” said one of the subjects.

I’m happy to report the 56 year olds are not only older but also wiser than their earlier selves. I also have to admit, it’s always a little disappointing to contrast them with their 7-year-old versions. Something’s been gained over the years but something’s been lost too.

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