Last Night's TV: The women in a class of their own

Class of 62 – from 16 to 60, BBC2; Warship, FIVE
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The Independent Culture

The initial temptation, watching Marilyn Gaunt's engrossing Class of 62 – From 16 to 60, in which she assembled interviews with six of her former classmates conducted in 1983, 1995 and 2007, was to dwell on what it wasn't, rather than what it was. What it wasn't was Michael Apted's epic Seven Up!, a project that has chronicled the lives of 14 people from widely differing social backgrounds from the time they were seven years old in 1964, revisiting them every seven years, most recently in 2005.

My notes are full of comparisons. "Not as good as Seven Up!," I scribbled, "because these women all went to the same school and came from similar socio-economic backgrounds. And they're all women!" I like seeing the term "socio-economic" in my notes. It makes me feel intelligent. A little later I scribbled, "Doesn't work as social history like Seven Up! did. Also, it feels frustrating meeting them in 1983, when they're already nearly 40. A shame they weren't interviewed when they left school, on the cusp of adulthood, in 1962!"

About halfway through, I realised that I'd got it wrong, that what I had perceived as weaknesses were actually strengths. Apted was interested in class, and to what extent a child's future is determined by the accident of birth. He also wanted to test the old Jesuit maxim "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man". But what was fascinating about Gaunt's subjects, whom we first met at a reunion to mark the 21st anniversary of the day they left their secondary modern in Leeds, was that at approaching 40 their futures were no more mapped out than they had been at 16. The vicissitudes of death, ill-health, divorce, financial hardship, but also happy second or even third marriages, the joys of grandparenthood, success in business, plain good luck, all lay in wait – springing out, in many cases, when they were least expected.

As for the homogeneity of what I suppose might be termed the "Gaunt Six", that turned out to enhance the story, just as Seven Up! was enhanced by diversity. It showed that the conditioning factors in a woman's life are not, or at least not necessarily, gender, education and class. In a strange way, Class of 62 offered a clearer microcosm of all our lives than the Seven Up! series. Over the 24 years from 1983 to 2007, Katy's husband Norman, a man seemingly in rude health, whom she described as her "Rock of Gibraltar", got throat cancer and died; Denise, who had been a battered wife, learnt that one of her daughters was gay, got fed up with Britain's "nanny state", went to live in Greece, missed the NHS and came back; Margaret divorced her Swiss husband, met a nice Italian called Luigi, and took up painting; Dorothy found that her husband, her childhood sweetheart, had been having an affair, divorced him and continued raising their son Steven, who has Down's syndrome; Sally had a part in Crossroads, cared for a mother with Alzheimer's, became a novelist, and went travelling round Europe in a camper van; Gillian became a surrogate mother to her grandchildren, a surrogate mother to her mother, got a job cleaning the church, and went to bed with a different man each night in the form of a succession of Mills & Boon heroes. Somewhere in there, but for the grace of God, go all of us. Except of course to the Crossroads Motel, which closed a while ago.

What was striking was how the needs of relatives had defined the lives of some of these women. Gillian had been dealt an especially wretched hand, and was also the only one without a companion, albeit that Dorothy's companion was her son Steven. We saw Dorothy taking Steven to York to be fitted with some chain mail for the historical re-enactments in which he loves to participate. It was as sweet and funny a piece of television as I've seen for ages. And I suppose that's the point: the ordinary lives of six women can engage all kinds of emotions. And while I was scribbling that in my notepad, my 45-year-old wife was feeling her chin, because Class of 62 was also fascinating on a purely physical level: it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that the ageing process is accelerated dramatically by an excess of weight.

The 20,600-tonne HMS Illustrious, launched in 1982, hasn't aged particularly well, either. It had to return to Portsmouth two days into a four-month tour of duty in the Indian Ocean because the fridge broke down. Then the engines failed. The Royal Navy, it rather worryingly appears, has a great deal in common with some of today's train operators. Also, the crew failed to show their battle-readiness, which was another reason to postpone the voyage. Warship is a six-part series, what used to be called a docu-soap, following these tribulations. I fear it might sink without trace.