I think about the people involved often, partly because I used to use the series as a teaching aid, and therefore have seen it more times than is strictly healthy, but partly because they are all my age, just about, so their progress or otherwise seems particularly resonant. Tony the East End taxi driver, who started life as a jockey (I saw him once, just off Euston Road, coming out of a bookie's, and it took me ages to work out why a cabbie should seem so film-star familiar); Bruce, the public schoolboy who wanted to be a missionary and ended up teaching among the Asian community in Tony's old school; poor Neil, the bright, neurotic grammar-school boy who dropped out of university and was last seen in self-imposed exile on a Shetland island, on the dole. . . These are my people, and I cheer every triumph, and wince at every misjudgement or piece of misfortune.
There is something poignant about looking at photos or films of kids who have already grown up - the Seven Up producers know this, and always preface their interviews with clips from the very first programme. This poignancy is partly a result of all the obvious stuff, I guess: the unlined faces of children, the mistakes yet to be made, the anticipation and openness that will eventually give way to regret and suspicion. But it's more than that, too. Knowing how things will turn out can occasionally be painful. 'If I can't be an astronaut, I'd like to be a coach driver,' said Neil when he was seven, his eyes suddenly alive with enthusiasm. 'I'll take people to the country or the seaside, and I'll have a megaphone, and . . .' This is hard to watch when you know that 28 years later he'll be shivering in a shabby overcoat, looking defeated, admitting that he's unhappy, and trying to explain why the local community no longer wants him as director of the village pantomime.
Seven Up makes you regret that adults never have to answer to their younger selves. A couple of weeks ago I was walking round Waitrose, as you do, with a shopping trolley, a baby and a partner, and I began to wonder what the 16-year-old version of me would say to me if we ran into each other, not that the 16-year-old me would have been seen dead in Waitrose. 'What the fuck do you think you're doing?' he would have said. (He always talked like that.) 'You look just like everybody else]'
He used to look just like everybody else too, of course, but I'd have understood what he meant: when you're 16, it is hard to understand the process that leads to babies and Waitrose on a Saturday morning, and even harder to envisage that this process will one day claim you. I wouldn't apologise to him, though. I'd explain that it didn't feel the same as it looked, that I felt like a man playing at pushing a supermarket trolley around with a baby in it. And then I'd show him all the good things - beer, Twiglets, Mars bar ice-creams (the latter would be enough to get him wishing his twenties away) - in the trolley, and point out that controlling the grocery shopping is not as dull as it looks. And I'd tell him that there were worse things to worry about than going to supermarkets; he'd certainly be perturbed to hear that he hadn't got any better at snooker, that if anything he'd got even worse, despite the effort he was putting in. And he'd find it hard to believe that he was only a matter of months away from selling his Deep Purple records.
I think that any younger version of myself would have been daunted by my apparently inexhaustible appetite for discontent. If the 28-year-old me, the 1985 vintage, had seen me at Arsenal a few months back, booing the team off the pitch after a dismal Cup defeat at home to Bolton, he wouldn't have been surprised; Arsenal were terrible in 1985, and had been for years, so why should he have expected any different? 'Same old rubbish]' he would have observed sympathetically. But then he would have asked to borrow my programme, just to bring himself up to date, and he would have seen the following: 'League Champions 1989, 1991; League Cup Winners 1987, 1993; FA Cup Winners 1993.'
First he would've fallen out of his seat; and then he would have said that if he'd seen Arsenal win five trophies over the last eight years, there'd be no way he'd be booing them off the pitch. And though I'd have pointed out, rather cleverly, that he would be booing them off, simply because he was me, and that's what I was doing, I would've felt ashamed of myself. What could I say in my defence? 'Well, they've been a bit boring for the last few weeks, and tonight they were pathetic, and . . . ' The 28-year-old would have wondered how and when he'd turned into such a whingeing ingrate. It wouldn't just be football that made him wonder. 'You've got a newspaper column and some weeks you don't feel like doing it? Poor diddums]'
Of course, you can't live your life at that sort of pitch; it isn't possible to carry the past around all the time, and in any case discontent is an important incentive to get yourself out of bed in the morning. But I wonder whether Tony, Neil, Bruce and the rest ever watch videos of their younger selves, and whether they ever feel that they've somehow let those bright, bubbly children down - by doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, or by getting hard, or simply by giving up and betraying all that unfocused hope. It's great that Seven Up was made - there are few other programmes with that kind of ambition, and none with that kind of patience. But we should count ourselves lucky that we are viewers rather than participants, so we don't have to see what we were, and what we wanted, and compare it with what we are and what we have.-