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Reel Life in 7-Year Intervals: UW Professor’s Highs and Lows Are Part of ‘Up’ Series’ Visits, Which Started in ’64

October 9, 2007

By Joanne Weintraub, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Oct. 9–VERONA — Most of the time, Nicholas Hitchon goes about his life undisturbed: driving to his job at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, meeting with his engineering students, pursuing his research, taking karate classes to work out the kinks.

But every seven years, like certain insects or Biblical events, a film crew arrives. They are cheerful, professional and relentless. In addition to following him everywhere for a week — up UW-Madison’s picturesque Bascom Hill, down to his karate class — they repeatedly “ram a microphone in my face,” as Hitchon grimly puts it, and ask him about his family life, his progress at work, his dreams and his disappointments.

And then they show the result on TV.

Watching it, Hitchon says, “is like the therapy session from hell.”

“49 Up,” the seventh and latest film in a remarkable series, airs Tuesday on PBS. It features Hitchon and 11 other former British schoolchildren who’ve been called the world’s first reality TV stars.

The 1964 original, “Seven Up,” was conceived as a picture of Britain’s rigid class system, with 7-year-olds from every sort of family talking about their everyday lives and what they want to be when they grow up — providing, as an announcer intones, “a glimpse of England in the year 2000.”

In that film, which is excerpted in the latest one, three private-school boys talk about the privileged futures they intend to have. A girl from London’s Cockney East End announces that, when she leaves school, “I’m going to work in Woolworth’s.”

And an unusually serious little boy named Nick from a Yorkshire farm, his hair cut in blunt bangs, says: “When I grow up, I’d like to find out all about the moon and all that.”

That first report’s unexpected popularity led to a 1970 sequel, “7 Plus Seven,” and then five more. The films are now in international theatrical release but continue to be shown on TV, too.

As a time-lapse view of children evolving into adults, most of them raising children of their own and a few welcoming grandchildren, the series has no equal. Critic Roger Ebert calls it one of the 10 best works of film ever produced.

In Britain, the “Up” series is an institution, its stars recognized by millions. A British paper called one of them, Tony Walker — a feisty Cockney school boy in ’64, a cabbie today — London’s best-known taxi driver.

Because Nick Hitchon moved at 25 to Madison, where he teaches in the engineering school and studies the behavior of certain hot gases called plasmas, his friends and neighbors don’t read much about him in the local papers. The “Up” films are a small-scale art-house phenomenon here. “P.O.V.,” the documentary series which will broadcast “49 Up” this week, has a low profile even by PBS standards.

But in the last year or so, Hitchon’s profile has risen slightly.

“I think it must be Netflix,” he says, referring to the popular video rental service. “About once a week, I get an e-mail, you know, thanking me for my participation (in the films).”

The e-mails come from all over the country. Closer to home, he has attracted the notice of a high school teacher in Solon Springs, Wis., who has asked him to tell his story to her students. Many come from rural backgrounds and don’t know any country boys who have advanced degrees in physics and engineering science from Oxford University.

He estimates he’s made the 600-mile round trip a half-dozen times in four or five years because, he says, “I love talking to those kids.”

Sipping jasmine tea in a big, sunny cafe not far from his house, Hitchon talks thoughtfully and at length, often with wry self-deprecation, about what it’s like to have been thrust into reality TV back in the black-and-white days and why, despite his reservations, he’s never turned the film crew away.

On the simplest level, it’s wonderful having such vivid home movies of himself and his family, even if means having to watch his parents grow frail and his own hairline recede. But beyond that, he calls the series historic and marvels at its ability to “capture the human condition” as it tracks the effects of time, choice and chance on a dozen lives.

“It’s not really about us,” Hitchon says. “Really, it’s just the stories of everyday people muddling through, isn’t it?”.

As for the reservations, well, where does he start?

Having four or five people mic you, light you, tail you and “ask you to walk up the same hill three times” for a week is an enormous pain in the neck, he says, though not in exactly those words.

He was actually six, not seven, when “Seven Up” was made, which he believes made him seem immature.

The filmmakers were so drunk with the brooding beauty of his native Yorkshire Dales that they kept dragging him back there when he was away at boarding school at 13 and at Oxford at 20.

“49 Up” highlights a professional setback he suffered long ago, but not the fact that he recently won his fourth teaching award (though it does feature a lively classroom scene that suggests why he won it).

Watching each new chapter, he is “humiliated” and “mortified” by his body language (which is ordinary) and the sound of his voice (a pleasant tenor that, when he says he does his research computations on “a whacking great computer,” brings to mind Wallace of the “Wallace & Gromit” movies and videos).

‘Thoughtful stubbornness’

More seriously and painfully, there’s the deeply personal nature of the on-camera interviews. Even during the offscreen pre-interview, he says, “I felt absolutely shattered just talking to Michael about what we might talk about.”

“Michael” is Michael Apted, best known in this country as the director of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,”"Gorillas in the Mist” and other Hollywood movies. A 22-year-old researcher on “Seven Up,” he went on to direct all six sequels and has said he’ll stay with the project until death or disability stops him.

Like Hitchon, Apted jumped the Atlantic to widen his career horizons. For that reason, the director told TV critics in January at a PBS session in Los Angeles, where he now lives, he feels a special affinity with Nick.

“It’s a much greater bond than just interviewer and interviewee,” Apted reflected. “It’s a very strange relationship we have. But I think with him I’m probably closest because there’s so much shared emotional baggage.

“I’ve always believed that if the series shows anything, it shows a kind of core personality that doesn’t change. With (Hitchon), you see this kind of thoughtful stubbornness as a little kid. There’s a kind of honesty about him, even at seven.

“There’s a composure about him, and he still has that. There’s something very luminous and truthful. He’s very open and very generous with his intimacies to me, and I think you could see that in a much more unsophisticated way at seven.”

In a scene from “Seven Up” that is repeated in the sequels, the boy with the bangs is asked if he has a girlfriend.

“I don’t answer those kind of questions,” he replies.

Seven years later, the adolescent Nick — sitting on a green Yorkshire hillside, his head partly buried in his knees and his bangs obscuring his eyes — is asked the same question and says the answer still stands. In “21 Up,” the college student — bangs gone but hair fashionably longer in the back — repeats the answer, but this time laughs good-naturedly.

But by “28 Up,” Apted needn’t ask the question. The young Madison professor appears with his wife, an Englishwoman and fellow academic.

By “35 Up,” they have a son. In “42 Up,” they talk about strains in their marriage, exacerbated by their separation from friends and family in England.

“Michael says he knew we were going to get divorced before I did,” Hitchon says. “He’s been telling people that for years.”

Talking about the divorce and what it meant to his relationship with his son, now 18, was the hardest part of making “49 Up.” It was small comfort that several of his cast mates, whose lives Hitchon follows with as much interest as other viewers, had been there before.

More surprisingly, he also found it painful to answer questions about his second wife, Cryss Brunner, a professor of education he met at a graduation ceremony.

“They put that mic in your face and ask, ‘Why did you choose your spouse?’” he says almost incredulously. “What a mean question!”

Mean?

“All right, maybe not mean, but impossible,” Hitchon amends. “For me, it’s particularly hard, because in America, if they ask you that question, you’d better have something very definite and very positive to say. But in England, that would be seen as bragging, and taken in a very negative way.”

A class clash left behind

Partly, no doubt, because Hitchon’s situation mirrors Apted’s, Nick’s homesickness has become a running theme of the films.

In “49 Up,” reflecting on his aging parents, his two younger brothers and the Yorkshire hills he still loves, he muses: “I was really not the sort of person who should have moved very far away.”

For a man who takes pleasure in his American career and delight in his American spouse — who teaches at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, meaning a long drive on alternating weekends for each of them — isn’t that an odd thing to say?

“I didn’t say (emigrating) was the wrong thing to do,” he replies. “But there are things that you don’t want to do, that are very hard to do, that you should do.

“It was important to leave. If I’d stayed, I was going to get into a very disgruntled rut.”

The reason he believes that has much to do with the class system “Seven Up” explored.

The lads who said they’d grow up to be as wealthy as their fathers were right. The girl who thought she’d wind up at Woolworth’s works at children’s libraries, but she has no degree and her job is in danger.

Hitchon is one of a tiny number who jumped class barriers by passing a tough exam at 10, attending what his friends called a “snob school” and going on to the cream of British universities.

With its inevitable omissions and compressions, the “Up” series makes his roots seems even humbler than they are, he says. True, the farm where his parents milked a dozen cows and tended sheep, chicken and the occasional pig was not an easy place to grow up. Yet his father had a college degree in agriculture, his mother trained as a teacher and both of them urged him to read everything he could get his hands on, from science to science fiction, when his farm chores were done.

Still, even with Oxford behind him, he felt his chances were limited in England.

To be successful there, he says, means “knowing the secret handshake, being part of some secret private club that I wasn’t a part of.” The cliche is true, in Hitchon’s eyes: His new country is more open to fresh ideas and unusual people than his old one.

“How many Englishmen does it take to change a light bulb?” he asks, repeating a hoary joke. “None. The old one’s worked perfectly well for 800 years and we’re not changing it now.”

In “49 Up,” one participant tells Apted that, as she nears the half-century mark, she’s begun to think she’ll drop out of the series. But Hitchon, who will be 50 this month, says he’s in it for the long haul.

He’s often asked whether the light that shone on him at age 6, immortalizing him as the child who wanted to learn “all about the moon and all that,” changed the course of his life.

“It’s really hard to say,” he replies with s characteristic reluctance to be pinned down. “But I sometimes think of that line from ‘Hamlet’ — what is it? ‘There are more things in heaven and Earth . . . than are dreamt of (in your philosophy)’? I think maybe that experience taught me that interesting things can happen even if you can’t imagine them.”

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Copyright (c) 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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