Seven Up and the changing face of reality TV - Anthony Clavane

Is it really 55 years since Michael Apted invented reality TV by introducing us to the Seven Up kids who dreamed of becoming astronauts, jockeys and missionaries?

It's 55 years since Michael Apted effectively invented reality TV with Seven Up.
It's 55 years since Michael Apted effectively invented reality TV with Seven Up.

The genre has become tarnished over the past couple of decades with the likes of Love Island, Made In Chelsea and Towie featuring honed contestants who dream of building massive followings on social media, becoming famous for being famous and appearing on Celebrity Juice, I’m A Celebrity and Celebrity Big Brother. Any show with the word “celebrity” in its title, really.

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Apted returned this week with the latest instalment of his extraordinary “social experiment”. Every seven years it has provided a fascinating socio-cultural snapshot of England, guided by the Jesuit motto: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”

Love Island, Made In Chelsea and Towie all subscribe to the adage: “Show me the randy, preening, fame-hungry, hormonal twentysomething and I will show you the next C-list celeb ready to smash the tabloid gossip pages.”

Seven Up is a byword for groundbreaking TV which, over six decades, has examined such themes as class, love and mortality. The newer crop of reality TV shows tend to be synonymous with trashy escapism.

Just to be clear, in case you hadn’t twigged, I am a bit 
“pied off” – a phrase popular with those beautiful, young, fame-hungry things – by the decline of a once-promising genre.

Back in 1964, when Seven Up was aired, Harold Wilson - the upwardly-mobile Yorkshireman with the common touch – was about to replace Alec Douglas-Home, the third Old Etonian Prime Minister in a row, as the head of government.

Gritty social dramas, northern-based soap operas and game-changing documentaries – like World In Action, which introduced us to Apted’s kids – burst on to our screens. In novels, the theatre and cinema, the upwardly-mobile working-classes barged through the privileged ranks of the elite.

Today, with old-Etonian Boris Johnson the runaway favourite to become the next Prime Minister, social mobility has stalled. The top 40 per cent of the population earn three times more than the bottom 40 per cent. According to a recent report, inequality is now so wide as to be “making a mockery of democracy”.

What went wrong? I know what the late, great Barry Hines would have said. In 1964 he began writing his first radio play, which was broadcast the following year on the Beeb. BBC North’s legendary head of drama, Alfred Bradley, was so impressed he recommended a bursary, which enabled the South Yorkshireman to write A Kestrel for a Knave.

Hines had reaped the benefits of the post-war economic and social consensus – which broke down during 
the Thatcherite 1980s. He observed that during the era of the Me Generation, Loadsamoney and yuppies, a new celebrity-obsessed Britain had come into being, with trashy escapist TV used to divert attention away from the divisive and often violent scenes broadcast nightly on the news bulletins.

So it came as no surprise to discover this week that After The Strike, his unflinching account of the Orgreave clashes between police and miners, was deemed too politically sensitive to be aired – despite the writer being at the height of his acclaim – in the mid-80s. This lost play, which will be performed in Sheffield later this month, views the miners’ defeat as the moment a greedy world emerged from the ashes of the communal welfare state.

Which brings us back to Seven Up and its meditation on class. My favourite participant has always been Sue, a working-class East Ender who shyly refused, as a teenager, to talk about boyfriends. She was shy about everything back then but in the recent series she has found her voice.

“My generation had wonderful support from the council,” she told Apted. “Which got me on to the ladder and changed my life. People are struggling now. 
I’m probably the last generation to get a decent NHS service.”

As Claire Lewis, Apted’s executive producer, noted: “The middle class privately-educated children have done very well indeed.” 63 Up, she argued, is “absolute proof the class system still exists”.

Or, in the words of our departing Prime Minister: “Nothing has changed.”