Back in 1964, Granada TV assembled 20 boys and girls from all walks of life for a series about growing up in the UK. Among the earliest scenes to be filmed were sequences of the seven-year-olds playing at London Zoo – and later in a nearby playground. That footage (complete with a polar bear) still features in the programme, which, under the benevolent gaze of director Michael Apted, has followed their lives with updates every seven years. Now, 56 years later, Seven Up! has become 63 Up, the age of its remaining 11 active cast members.
Among those children were Tony Walker, a cheeky little East End boy with dreams of being a jockey; Bruce Balden, a pre-prep-school boarder whose old-before-his-years air instantly evaporated the moment he voiced his dearest wish: to see his father who was soldiering in Rhodesia, “6,000 miles away”; and Sue Davis, the East End girl who was filmed with her schoolfriends Jackie and Lynn. Lynn died in 2013, the first of the cast (as they tend to call themselves) to pass away, but her family are taking part in this series.
Tony’s dreams of being a jockey didn’t work out (although he did race at Kempton Park alongside Lester Piggott) and he became a London cabbie; university administrator Sue married early, divorced by the age of 35 and has been with a new partner since 42 Up. And Bruce, who did get to see his dad again, studied maths at Oxford, worked in Bangladesh, taught at a London comprehensive before moving to his current job at a private school in St Albans.
But is the child, as the Jesuits believed, the father of the man? Were their paths already set by the age of seven? And what’s it been like to take part in this series? We took Bruce, Sue and Tony back to London Zoo to find out…
Do you remember filming at the zoo? Surely you do, Tony, with your cabbie’s knowledge…
TONY I remember it was a Saturday and I was the scruffiest one. I remember the playground, too, that was in Shepherd’s Bush.
SUE I’ve seen the clip, but I don’t remember the day. I have a terrible memory. I’m like a goldfish. I remember being filmed at 14 because that’s the embarrassing age.
BRUCE I don’t remember it at all.
You’ve recently seen the first film of the new three-part series – what did you think of it?
BRUCE It’s so heart-warming. It’s nice to see a life from the beginning, a progress through life.
TONY I was quite happy. I was looking with trepidation, a bit of nerves. I think everyone does. All you’re asking for is credibility. Seeing my grandchildren grow up in the same film really touched a nerve with me.
SUE It’s knowing your children have always got this. That record of your life and your children’s lives is always there and I’m really proud to be part of it. It was sad in places watching this new one, but in a nice way. We’re all feeling older and we have aches and pains and life has chucked things at us, but we all came across in a positive way…
And you’re all still glad you took part?
SUE We’re all terrified we’re going to make a fool of ourselves and say something really stupid we can’t take back. Because we don’t get to edit it or see it before it’s finished, so you have to think about what you’re saying.
TONY There’s trust there. The whole production team have always been there. I trust them with my life.
BRUCE You feel they will be positive. They won’t try to catch you out or trip you up. It’s not a political interview. It’s bringing you out, telling the story of your life so people can see their own lives reflected in that. We’ve all lost somebody, we’ve all been through grief.
Bruce (far left), Tony (middle) and Sue (right of Tony) during 21 Up (ITV archives)
How do you look at your seven-year-old self? What advice would you give that child?
BRUCE I see someone I don’t really identify with. I know that was me, but it doesn’t feel like me. I see him as a completely different person.
TONY They were some of the best days of my life. I remember we went to the playground and had some lemonade in a hut and Jackie was dancing. And me beating up the posh kids…
Who did you beat up?
TONY [Pre-prep-school boy] Andrew [Brackfield] said, “They’re a bit rough and tumble for me” and one of them punched me in the back. It was a them and us thing. I wouldn’t say I beat them up, it was a rough and tumble…
Have you ever regretted saying something?
TONY I had a lot of adverse publicity after the last one, 56 Up. I’m a very staunch East End boy, typical traditionalist. And the demographics have changed considerably in the East End. What was happening when I was 56 made me out to be what Michael considered… “that’s a racist comment, Tony”, and I am quoting him. And I wasn’t trying to be. I got a bit of flak. But I don’t regret saying anything.
SUE We all say silly things. But we’re not professionals. We’re just normal people thrust into this very abnormal situation. I did an interview with a newspaper and I got a taste of what it’s like for people in the limelight and they twisted my words to make a very hurtful headline about my first marriage. That little tiny bit of celebrity we get every seven years, you open yourself up to comments from people.
Tony had become a London cabbie by 28 Up (ITV)
The programme is famously based on the Jesuit idea that if you give someone a child till they’re seven they can show you the person they’ll become. Has that proved true?
TONY With the academic side of things, of course it does. With respect to dear Bruce here, but he went to pre-prep-school when he was seven. When I was seven I had my arse hanging out of my trousers, swimming in the canal, going down Vicky [Victoria] Park. I had no academic education.
BRUCE There’s something from the seven-year-old in all of us, you can see that. It certainly was a polemic about class to begin with but it’s become much more human than that with the stories. But someone like Sue is doing a really responsible job now…
SUE Yes, I enjoy my job. I had a good education, a good comprehensive education.
What has been the most surprising thing on your Up journeys?
SUE In America I went with Michael [Apted] to a film festival and the Americans absolutely love this programme and people were hugging me in the street. They said they had been watching me since I was seven years old. Perfect strangers, which can be frightening…
TONY A woman got in touch with me from Hull and she said when I was seven she was pregnant and she had a baby boy and named it Tony. And Tony had a son called Tony. And she still phones me and sends me a Christmas card. And when I call her she says, “I can’t wait to see you on the telly.” It’s fantastic.
Sue (far right) with friends Jackie Bassett and Lynn Johnson (centre) who died in 2013
There were only four girls and one non-white child in the cast. Is that a problem?
BRUCE Michael has always said he wishes he had balanced it with more women, but quite a few wives have come into it.
TONY My dear wife, yes, very vocal.
SUE He purposely involved more wives to try to get the balance. He didn’t think women would be anything other than housewives at that time, but of course understands that every woman has their story and as the years have gone on that’s been proven. But that was the 60s. Different time.
You’ll be 70 for the next series. Would you do more?
SUE Personally, and just speaking for myself, I am in a good place but things are going to get worse. You’re going to get sicker and older. Both my parents are with me so I’m thinking, “Another seven years, who knows? Am I going to be here, are they going to be here?” There’s an element that thinks this would be a good time to finish, but another part of me thinks seven till 70? It’s got a good ring.
TONY Seven to 70 has got a good ring. You have to look at Michael, who’s now 77. His dedication, his tenacity, his talents would endorse another programme, providing all the same crew are still here. We’re not getting any younger, though…
SUE It’s bad enough losing Lynn, so who knows what’s round the corner.
Would you do it without Michael at the helm?
BRUCE If they did it again without Michael or some of the others, it would be very, very different. So probably not.
TONY No, I wouldn’t, he’s been like a brother to me. I love him dearly. The Up series is Michael Apted.
SUE I doubt it very much. It would have to be a totally different kind of programme. The way it’s formatted now, that’s the trust with Michael and the crew.
Where would you like to be in your lives when 70 Up comes round?
BRUCE Probably retired by the sea.
TONY Retired, on a golf course, with my horses.
SUE I’d love to be retired with a nice cottage in Devon or Cornwall. I’ve always wanted that.
63 Up airs on Tuesday 4th – Thursday 6th June on ITV at 9pm.
The documentary Seven Up and Me airs on Monday 3rd June on ITV at 9pm.