"56 Up" sees class barriers fade ... even in England

From the beginning, the "Up" films have been fascinating looks at changing lives. Every seven years, they've returned to the same people.

Now "56 Up" reaches PBS on Monday. Here's the story I sent to papers:


A half-century ago, a documentary called “Seven Up” could easily
have escaped attention.

It was black-and-white and British. It showed 7-year-olds –
half from upper-crust families – at play and in conversation. It tried to be a
“deep study of the English class system,” filmmaker Michael Apted said.

Then it became much more.

Apted, a researcher for that film, directed new ones every
seven years, tracing those people. “I began to lose my obsession with the class
thing and concentrate much more on the growth of the personality.”

For some, that growth is enormous. “You can aspire to be and
do whatever you feel,” Tony Walker said.

In attitude, perhaps, Walker didn’t change much from “Seven
Up” to “56 Up,” which reaches PBS on Monday, via the “POV” series. “You can see
the exuberance that’s part of me at 7 and (now I’m) no different,” he said.

That’s true of most people, Apted said. “The personality is
pretty much embedded at 7.”

What they do with that personality is the key. Some people
stuck to the class stereotypes; some didn’t.

Upper-crust, Oxford guys? One, Bruce Balden, taught in
Bangladesh and then for decades in one of London’s tough, East End
neighborhoods. Another, John Brisby, focuses on charities in Bulgaria.

Lower-income kids? With no advanced education, Sue Davis
became a top administrator at a law school. Walker and his wife prospered as
cab drivers; they bought a second home, in Spain, and almost started a sports
bar nearby.

That’s a leap from a childhood in, he said, a “very
low-income family …. My dad was in and out of jail.”

Walker said he emerged via hard work, a “streetwise education”
and that attitude. “I’m a typical, London happy-go-lucky cabbie,” he said.

He enjoys a friendship with Apted, who became a Hollywood
director, from “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Gorillas in the Mist” to a James
Bond film and the second “Narnia” film. And he savors cabbie life.

His passengers have included Johnny Depp, Robert Downey,
David Hasselhoff and Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. (One person, it
seems, wanted Walker’s autograph, not Aldrin’s.) And Brisby.

By coincidence, Walker said, he was next in line when his “56
Up” colleague was waiting for a cab. After paying the fare, Brisby invited him
into his elegant home.

“He’s up at this (high) end … and I’m at the other end, as a
snotty-nosed kid. And we were having tea together. It was a fantastic story.”
And it was a long leap from the rigid class structure of “Seven Up.”

“56 Up,” 10 p.m. Monday, most PBS stations
(check local listings)

Under the “POV” series title