63 Up – a review

‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.’

It is a quotation attributed to both Aristotle and Ignatius of Loyola.

(And quoted by such varied luminaries as Pascal, Lenin and Kipling.)

But is it true? That’s what 63Up is trying to discover.

63 Up is the TV documentary which started out, in 1963, as 7UP.

It has followed the lives of a group of people born in 1956, starting with their seven-year-old selves, and then returning every seven years to see how things are going.

Some started life in children’s homes. Others began in the most socially privileged settings.

Some in East End council flats; others, Westminster/Oxbridge-bound.

And the question: does anyone really change?

It is gripping viewing as we follow the twelve or so lives of those remaining in the series. One has now died – the determined East End Lynn who became a much-loved children’s librarian.

I believe a couple of others have opted out of the series. One spoke of it as the ‘poison pill’ they have to take every seven years – and many viewed it as a challenge.

And we can understand that. Being faced with yourself is a challenge. So there’s bravery to them all for hanging in.

There are sad stories and beautiful stories. I found the most peaceful lives were those of the two Barnardo’s boys, Paul and Symon, who have stayed in contact and seemed most comfortable in their skins. Symon, one of them, has now fostered over 130 children.

While amazingly, the emotionally-fragile and often homeless Neil survives and offers himself in service to the world. (Lib Dem councillor and a Reader in his church)

He once said that if he didn’t have film evidence showing him as a cheerful child he wouldn’t have believed it. But then sometimes childhood pain takes a while to work through into our consciousness. There is much that is hidden from view in a seven-year-old.

Life has been a struggle for them all in different ways; but those who started rich have remained rich, this is clear. The posh stay posh.

Society is still about who you know rather than who you are. We need others to give us breaks…and money/influence helps that significantly.

The fascination of this programme is not difficult to understand.

The documentary – which was once voted the greatest documentary of all time – is a meditation on our own ordinary lives: childhood, hopes, work, marriage, children, divorce, disappointment, fears, breakdown, ill health and death.

My life is here in these peoples’ stories; though I might live the issues differently.

And does anyone change? 

Certainly the programme reveals the power of the hard-wiring of childhood, and the patterns of behaviour that emerge from that. Most of those taking part assent to this truth. They see themselves in their seven-year-old still.

To that extent, Aristotle was right. The child at seven has much of their future in their body already.

But there’s more to it than this.

Participants in the 63UP adventure have largely come to terms with their lives in one way or another. They don’t necessarily change much; but they learn how to survive in their skins.

And survival is important… but we won’t mistake it for growth.

And there is growth here as well. Occasionally, someone transcends where they started; achieves something they know their younger self could never have done – like Barnardo Boy Paul building a new life in Australia, with a thirty-seven year marriage still strong.

(She was first drawn to him because he had a cute bum in shorts. Not traditional marriage preparation.)

That Children’s Home boy, who feared everything, has travelled a long way. He is much less fearful now.

My sense is that Aristotle is only half-right. Our story is powerfully-started at seven…

… but it doesn’t end there.


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