Reel life: The mesmerizing saga of “56 Up”

(CBS News) Imagine your real life experiences from the age of seven made into a series of documentaries. For a group of people in Britain there is no imagining — they’ve been watching their lives unfold on the screen for half-a-century, with the latest installment scheduled to run on PBS on October 14th. Their personal stories are our Cover Story, reported by Lee Cowan:

An earlier version of this story was originally broadcast on January 6, 2013.

It looks like any other group of kids in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t just a dance party. It was a sociological experiment for a British documentary called “Seven Up!”

The idea was to gather 7-year-olds from widely different backgrounds, and look at Britain’s class system through their eyes.

At one end of the extreme: Upper-class seven-year-olds, like the trio of John, Andrew and Charles attending a boarding school.

John: “I read the Financial Times.”
Andrew: “I read the Observer and the Times.”
Charles: “What do you like about it?”
John: “Well, I usually look at the headlines, and then read about them.”

At the other end of the spectrum: seven-year-olds who were less privileged, like those growing up in a charity group home.

Interviewer: “What do you think about rich people?”
Symon: “Well, not much.”

After it first aired in 1964, the boys and girls — 14 of them in all — became mini-celebrities for their infectious wit and charm.

Interviewer: “What do you think of girlfriends at your age?”
Andrew: “I’ve got one, but I don’t think much of her!”

The man who plucked them from obscurity all those years ago was Michael Apted, a 22-year-old researcher on the project.

“It was very funny, the original one, but it was also alarming,” Apted told Cowan. “You could see that people’s views of the world were totally determined by where they were coming from. And those who had somewhat impoverished backgrounds had a very narrow view of the world, and those who were in power had this grand view, not just of the world, but of their lives.”

He was so struck by what they said that he vowed to track the same group down every seven years ever since. The latest installment, “56 Up,” is the continuation of a series that the late critic Roger Ebert called one of the best films of all time.

Cowan asked, what is it that makes this so compelling?

“Well, ’cause I think people identify with it,” Apted replied. “You see 13, 14 stories up there, and there’s elements in some of them that hit home on every life. Everybody who watches it can identify with something.”

Suzy is one of his favorites. When she was seven, the series pried into her thoughts on boys. Over the years Apted kept asking:

Interviewer: “Tell me, do you have any boyfriends Suzy?”
Suzy at 7: “Um, yes. … He lives up in Scotland. I think he’s 13.”
Interviewer: “Have you got any boyfriends, Suzy?”
Suzy at 14: Glares.
Interviewer: “What is your attitude toward marriage?”
Suzy at 21: “I don’t know, I haven’t given it a lot of thought because I’m very, very cynical about it.”
Interviewer: “Now you seem happy, what’s happened to you over these last seven years?”
Suzy at 28: “I suppose Rupert.”

Now at 56, Suzy is still married to Rupert, with two grown sons and a daughter.

“There are great moments in the film, aren’t there, when you cut from one generation to another, and it’s night and day,” said Apted.

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