Sunday, December 11, 2005

The “Up” Series (1)

Sunday I caught up on my Netflix DVDs and I watched about six hours of the “Up Series,” which could be said to be the longest-running reality show in history.

The “Up Series” consists of five documentaries (7 Up, 7 Plus 7, 14-Up, 21-Up, etc.) made in Britain chronicling the lives of 14 children first filmed at age seven in 1964. Every seven years the director touches base with them to see how their lives have progressed. The last documentary came out in 1999 when the kids, now kids no longer, were 42. The next segment will be out in 2006 when they are 49.

The series is both fascinating and scary. For the majority of the kids, the way they were going to end up really could be predicted at age seven or at the latest by fourteen. I found myself wishing that a parallel project had been undertaken with a group of American kids to see if their lives over the same timeframe were more unpredictable.

The handwriting was on the wall for most of the working-class kids. Tony, a short boy with a Mickey Rooney face, wanted to be a jockey at age seven. By 15 he had dropped out of school to pursue his dream and he told the director that if he failed to make if as a jockey he would become a taxi driver. Well, he failed, and he became a taxi driver. But his is not a sad story. He bought a taxi, got married, and with the money he and his wife make driving the taxi in shifts, they’ve bought a house, have raised two kids and own two ponies that Tony has taught his daughters to care for. He picked up the acting bug in his late twenties and he has progressed from roles as extras to bit parts on TV. Not bad for someone who left school at such a young age.

The three working-class girls Jackie, Lyn and Sue fared worse. At seven all they could talk about was marriage. At fourteen they insisted that they didn’t want to get married too young, but at 21 two of the girls were already married and the third was married by 24. By 28, two of the three were divorced. All three continued to work, however. Surprisingly, Jackie, who by choice never had kids with her first husband, had three boys after the age of 35. Lyn, who remained married from the age of 19, became active on the local school council and she teaches reading classes to mostly Indian and Arab kids in an East London that has undergone a dramatic change from her youth. Sue, the last of the three to marry and the first to divorce, had to go on the British version of welfare for a while but ended up doing clerical work in a law office at a university. She displayed a previously unseen talent for singing in the 42-Up documentary.

More later on the biggest success, Nick, the farmboy who exceeded all expectations, and Neil, who by 28 seemed the most likely to commit suicide.

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