Lucky Number Seven

The Canadian behind Britain’s iconic documentary series

A group children sitting around a campfire
Illustration by Emily Taylor

Like most great British ideas, this one was born in a pub. It was the spring of 1963, and Paul Almond, a Montreal filmmaker employed at the UK’s Granada TV network, was having drinks in London with Tim Hewat, head of the public affairs show World in Action. After a few pints, their discussion turned to the notoriously rigid British class system. “I’m amazed at how entrenched it is here,” Almond said. Hewat, an Australian, agreed, noting that class differences were ingrained from a young age. Then he quoted a Jesuit maxim: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

That gave Almond an idea: “Why not interview a group of seven-year-old British kids? ” The result was Seven Up!, broadcast on May 5, 1964, and the first instalment of one of the world’s most beloved documentary series. In Seven Up!, a gaggle of children offer their opinions on life, their future, and most notably class; the series has revisited the participants every seven years since. Critic Roger Ebert listed the Up documentaries among his favourite films of all time, writing that they “penetrate to the central mystery of life.” However, few people realize that a Canadian was the moving force behind their creation.

Almond, now eighty-three, finds it hard to believe that fifty years have passed since Up began. Then a young filmmaker who made a name for himself directing plays for television, he was working in the UK on contract; in 1961, he directed a young Sean Connery in a Canadian TV production of Macbeth. After Granada gave Almond and Hewat the green light for Seven Up!, they started looking for subjects. Their focus was always class: how your economic stratum at birth would dictate your opportunities in life. After interviewing the children, Almond narrowed the group down to fourteen. (The casting calls were, by his admission, decidedly pre-feminist, with ten boys chosen and only four girls.)

In Seven Up!, the children talk about everything from what newspapers they read, to what colleges they want to attend (one doesn’t know what a university is), to race relations (another has no interest in meeting people of colour). What emerges is a strange, moving time capsule of Britain in postwar decline. “Seven Up! is incredible, in the way it gets to the core of British society, and that is the class issue,” says Will Straw, a professor of communication studies at McGill University. “That was the moment when the working class was being celebrated. You had the kitchen-sink dramas on stage and screen, and you had scrappy actors like Michael Caine who spoke with a cockney accent.”

Seven Up! became an immediate sensation. The kids spoke with the sort of naive honesty only found in youth, and Granada reran the show on New Year’s Eve. Almond was happy that it was a hit but didn’t think much more about it. He returned to Canada to direct television (including episodes of The Forest Rangers, the country’s first colour TV show) and several experimental films.

Later, Michael Apted, a young assistant and researcher on Seven Up!, pitched the idea of 7 Plus Seven, turning the one-off into a series. By then back in Canada and immersed in a feature filmmaking career, Almond did not participate in the ensuing sequels; some bad blood developed when he realized that he and Hewat had been removed from the credits of 28 Up, but their names were reinstated on subsequent episodes. “Some of them are better than others,” Almond says. “I mean, 7 Plus Seven is a bit weak, simply because fourteen-year-olds are so dreadful.”

As the children morphed into adults, new questions arose about the ethics of middle-class filmmakers leering at low-income subjects in an effort to evoke pathos. In 28 Up, Apted repeatedly questions three working-class women about how their backgrounds might have held them back. After several prods, he insists that they must have contemplated this question at some point. Fed up, one participant answers, “Once every seven years.” By 2012’s 56 Up, though, the series became more about aging than socio-economic status. The regulars speak about the agony of lost parents, chronic illnesses, and dreams that will never come true.

Almond himself seems age-proof, still an athletic man with a husky voice who just completed an eight-book series about his family’s history. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2001, and he has stayed in touch with one Seven Up! subject: Tony, a cab driver. “He gave my wife and me a tour of London the last time we were there,” Almond recalls. “He kept getting recognized in the street.”

This appeared in the June 2014 issue.

Matthew Hays
Matthew Hays has written for the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Globe and Mail.
Emily Taylor
Emily Taylor has created art for Subway and Corporate Knights.