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September 27, 2005

49 Up - it is only the programme's makers who remain hung-up about class today

Posted by Harry Phibbs

49 Up
ITV1, 15th & 22nd September 2005

In 1964 a group of seven year-old - rich and poor - children were filmed and interviewed about their attitudes and expectations of life. Since then, programmes have been made every seven years catching up with them, their stories and their changing expectations. The latest is 49 Up. A motivation for the programme was to show how different class backgrounds would lead to different outcomes for the children. Harry Phibbs finds that - with 49 Up - it is only the programme's makers who seem to remain hung-up about class today. While in the early programmes class resentment was evident, the participants today seem blithely unconcerned. It is time to call an end to the series, as it has nothing left to tell us, argues Harry Phibbs.

My hunch is that the original motive for this series was to show how rigid class structures are in Britain. It began as a Granada TV special as part of the World in Action series in 1964. A collection of seven-year-olds were filmed and interviewed - boys and girls and, more importantly, rich and poor. The promise was "to show the shop steward and executive of 2000". Each seven years another documentary is produced showing us how they have got on.

Much the best bit is the archive shots of snatches of these interviews with children. They make such uninhibited comments. One boy Paul said in 1964 that he wouldn't marry:

because if I did my wife would cook and she could make me eat whatever she cooked.
He ended up in Australia.

The posh children, in particular, must cringe at some of the comments. Here are John, Andrew and Charles at their prep school in 1964 asked whether fee paying schools should be abolished. John says:

I think it's not a bad idea to pay for schools because if you didn't the schools would be so nasty and crowded.
Andrew agrees and then Charles says:
The poor children would come rushing in.
Andrew clinches the argument by stating:
The man in charge of the school would be very angry because he wouldn't be able to pay all the masters if there wasn't any money.

The 49-year-old Andrew gives an exchange with the interviewer worthy of Yes Minister:

When we were 7, 14 and 21 we were prepared to say what we thought but now we have become much more guarded.
The interviewer asks:
Guarded about what?
Andrew replies:
I'm guarded about being guarded.

The 49-year old John says:

I bitterly regret my headmaster pushing me forward to do the programme. I have a little pill of poison to endure every seven years... It's like Big Brother but with the added bonus that you see people grow old, get fat, lose their hair. Fascinating, I'm sure. But does it have any value? That's another question.
John is a barrister and is still ambitious to become a Tory MP. His manner is not conducive to the caring, inclusive, modern image the Tories are keen to embrace. However in reality he obviously is rather caring as he has set up a charity Friends of Bulgaria which has raised useful sums for the sick and disabled in that country. John acknowledges that the 49 Up programme helped to raise money for the charity.

One of the other public school boys, Bruce, felt so overcome with guilt that he became a maths teacher in a rough state school in London's East End. Ironically, many of the poor children interviewed turned out to have become rich enough to move out of the East End and seized the chance to do so. As the broadcaster and former Labour MP Brian Walden once remarked:

Those who lament how sad it is that we are seeing the break up of traditional working class communities are invariably those who didn't actually have to live in those communities.
In any event Bruce has now tamed his social conscience sufficiently to be teaching at a fee paying school. He said of teaching in the East End:
I thought, I don't think I can do this until I'm 60.
As a child Bruce said that his ambition was:
To go to Africa and teach people who are not civilised to be more or less good.
Bruce's kindness extended to one of the others featured in the series, Neil. For the last programme, when they were 42, Neil was a tenant of Bruce's in Hackney. Bruce recalls:
He would find the fridge a bit noisy and turn it off.
Neil, who at the time was a Lib Dem councillor in Hackney and is now a Lib Dem councillor in Cumbria, replies:
I accept I wasn't an ideal tenant.
During earlier programmes we had seen him squatting, sleeping rough or living in Shetland.

Tony is one of the poor children who did reasonably well for himself. Working hard as a self employed taxi driver he has bought a house in Spain. Far from the hopes of the Granada producers that he would become a shop steward he became a Thatcherite stereotype and complains about the Congestion Charge and Tony Blair. The poor children are all asked in 1964 what they think about the rich and all duly complain about how unfair it is. But as adults they often have got on with making the best of their lots and show little sign of resentment towards the rich - saving it up for the programme makers.

This even applies to those who have not really prospered. There is Simon who when asked as a child about rich people said:

They have everything they want and poor people have nothing.
He has a low paid job handling freight at Heathrow but has ambition for his son. (He goes to school in Slough because that's where they do grammar schools.) Invited to voice a grievance about his lack of fortune he just replies:
I was a lazy sod when I was younger.
From attempting to show how rigid society is, if anything the programme has shown the opposite. It is probably time to call a halt to this series. Many refused to participate and those who did grumbled about how they were portrayed and the intrusiveness of the process. It has become a pudding without a theme.

Much better for ITV to show the first programme again in its entirety. Rather than attempting to predict the future it could usefully tell us, or remind us, or what it was like to be a child in 1964.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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Actually, what's good about the series is the way reality keeps clouting the programme makers over the head. Things just _don't_ turn out the way they should. Delightful.

Posted by: Sudha Shenoy at September 28, 2005 01:12 PM
•••

I think the series does have an immense value, but entirely different than programme makers intended. Financial and class differences are nothing compared to the commonality amongst the participants as they age. At 49, it's clear that the happiness and health of their families has become the be-all end-all to most of them. Those who have no children (posh John and Neil who was homeless) both have found substitutes in some sort of public service.

Posted by: Ingrid at October 4, 2005 02:44 AM
•••

Actually, the power of the film IS with respect to class. Yes, we all live our lives more concerned with our families and the day-to-day trials. But the central, subtle and complicated beauty of the films is in the way we see how class, in its current complexity, still underpins so much of the experience of these people. If you cannot see this you are blind or so politically and artistically tone deaf that it must be a real drag to watch these films. Sudha seems to miss the power of the film by assuming that the director anticipated that things 'should' turn out one way or another. The point is not that they should be one thing or another, but that the structures of class just do influence us. Maybe that influence is complicated and maybe it is not simply predetermined, but class obviously matters.

Posted by: steve at January 30, 2006 03:42 AM
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I'm not sure we've all watched the same series - NOT 1 of the 'lower-class' participants goes to university and what's more, NOT 1 (of those still in the UK) have a child who goes to universtiy. Clearly the effects of class persist throughout the generations in the UK.

Posted by: karen at May 22, 2006 02:33 AM
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