So for another seven years, while a catalogue of reality TV in various atom-splitting forms continues to fill our eyes, we’re going to have to do without the understated but overwhelming project that is 7 Up and its half-century of sequels.
56 Up concluded last night, with – as throughout the entire series – East End jockey turned cabbie Tony leaving his special mark. Tony, whose cheeky grin remains intact from the very first show in his ruffled school uniform, obviously holds a strong place in the affections of producer Michael Apted, who nonetheless pushed him on his contradictions – moaning about immigration in the UK, while sipping a drink by his own Spanish poolside – and personal flaws, “I’ve always had a sociable nature and it’s got me into trouble, as has been documented.”
Talking of his love for his wife and children, Tony welled up, and it would take a heart of lead not be moved by this everyman’s failings and his gratitude for redemption at the hands of family unity.
Tony has found consolation for life's vicissitudes with his family
Looking after children, or being involved in their lives, seemed to bring out the best in all of last night’s subjects - whether it was teacher Bruce, trying to fit an oversized mattress into an undersized tent on a cricket weekend bonding with his sons, librarian Lynne determined to keep her job providing books for children despite all the cuts around her, Tony looking after his granddaughter while his daughter “sorted herself out”, or John heading off to Bulgaria to make sure his charity’s money got properly spent on giving disabled children proper treatment. As Lynne said, after she got the redundancy boot one more time and resigned herself to working past 60, “All these things are flying through my mind, but it has been worth it.”
Watching footage of the subjects as children talking about their futures, showed just how much the posher ones had their lifelines planned and followed, compared with the mercurial mercy of the fates experienced by working-class Tony and Lynne. But this didn’t tell the whole story by any means. The clipped tones of barrister John belied the fact, as he told us, that “my father died when I was 9, and my mother struggled to keep me at school, and I got a scholarship to Oxford.”
Barrister John reminds us not to be fooled by appearances, that his life has known its challenges
And success is always comparative. John mentioned how both his earliest school-friends are now government ministers, so “one can’t help but feel a failure in comparison” – this from a long-time barrister now a QC, who also runs an overseas charity that revolutionises the lives of disabled children.
It seemed that, whatever the state of their differing wealth and station in life, for all of last night’s subjects, it was clear that family in whatever its form – extended, surprise arrivals, belated parenthood, and John dancing with the Bulgarian children he has worked so hard for - all remained a constant consolation, a beacon of focus and purpose on the roving road that is life.
John summed it up, “I’ve wonderful friends, I’m happily married, I’m incredibly blessed in all sorts of respects” – a statement very moving in its simplicity, and inspiring in its truth.
Pictures of the 56 Up-ers through the years - would you recognise them?
Sue with her friends in 7 Up. This slideshow shows 3 of the documentary series subjects - Sue, Paul and Neil - through the years. All pictures: ITV.