Focus: Now we are 49

He was the prep-school posh one who read the 'FT' at the age of seven, and one of the most precocious of the 14 children chosen in 1964 for the watch-them-grow TV series '7 Up'. Forty-two years later, he's still turning out for the cameras. Older but none the wiser as to what all the fuss is about, as he tells Marina Cantacuzino

The cut-glass accent that millions of viewers have been reminded of every seven years in the ground-breaking series 7 Up has been replaced by something far less grating. Always one of those 7-Uppers destined to succeed, Andrew - no surnames are used in the series - had his life mapped out, just like the other two boys filmed in their smart Kensington private school. He even predicted his future job as a solicitor on screen.

Now the programme is back - the first half of the two-part 49 Up is on ITV1 on Thursday - and Andrew has turned out to be far more "ordinary" and self-effacing than the earlier celluloid footage might have suggested. "I still wonder why anyone would be interested in someone like me who has led a fairly conventional life," he shrugs. "There are probably others in the programme far more interesting."

You sense that being described as ordinary would almost be a compliment for him. While admitting to being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he now sees himself as solidly middle class. But he's not embarrassed to look back at the pompous child firmly locked in another era. It's like looking at a moment in history. The black and white grainy images of the early 1960s, shot against the World in Action music, are very dated. It's also unimaginable to think of a present-day London prep-school trio being so unworldly, and it is surprising to discover how little fuss was made over Andrew when he first appeared on television in 1964. "I can't remember anyone saying anything much. I certainly didn't become a celebrity."

However, the longevity and reputation of the 7 Up series has created an inescapable celebrity factor - something he is wary of, along with most of his "co-stars". "We are not people who want to be in Big Brother. In reality TV, people become celebrities because that's what they're doing it for. This is tame by comparison." Clearly, though, he doesn't mind brushing with fame every so often, and is quietly amused by people spotting him in the street. He's been accosted by Dutch women in Singapore and by Australians at Sydney Opera House.

The initial 7 Up documentary featured 14 seven-year-olds from all points on the social spectrum, plucked from obscurity some 42 years ago to make television history. As Andrew points out, there was a fair smattering of toffs and working-class ruffians - but not that many middle-class kids. They didn't make such good telly.

As one of 49 Up's reluctant stars, Andrew feels a mixture of curiosity and anxiety whenever the programme is due to be aired - curiosity about what's happened to the other participants during the past seven years (they don't stay in touch), and anxiety about how his performance will be perceived this time round by friends, colleagues and the general public.

The programme was conceived as a social experiment setting out to explore whether the Jesuit maxim "Show me the child at seven and I will show you the man" is true, but also to expose (which it did, both with gentle humour and searing honesty) Britain's rigid post-war class system. It's an experiment that remains fascinating today.

Yet Andrew is convinced that his life doesn't merit such scrutiny. In the past seven years the most exciting things that's happened to him is that he's swapped his job in a City law firm for that of an in-house lawyer for BOC in Surrey. I ask if the director, Michael Apted, interviewed him about this. "Yes, but it's not terribly interesting." His natural reticence stems from a feeling that, really, his life doesn't make for gripping telly. "What's interesting about this programme is watching how people grow up and change over the years. To a certain extent I suppose this is reality TV, although reality TV is of the moment and this is far more reflective. If any of us were plucked out now and asked to speak on TV about anything, most of us wouldn't have much to say."

Andrew says that "every seven years I dread the phone call". So why do it? "I guess a slight sense of obligation to keep it going. I don't want to be the one who makes it fall to bits. They always say this will be the last one, but then seven years pass and there's another call. I do wonder how much longer it can run. Will it still be interesting when we're all 70? The risk is you get seduced by the whole thing. They turn up. Mike is very friendly and good at his job. At first you're a bit nervous but after a couple of hours you're very relaxed. Some people may think if you don't say something controversial they won't use it. But I don't feel that. If they don't use it that's fine. I'd never say something for effect."

While he certainly doesn't want to shout about his private life, at the same time he feels it's a matter of integrity to tell it how it is. "I would never be dishonest but there are certain things I wouldn't volunteer." Luckily for him there don't appear to be any skeletons in the cupboard. He's happily married, has two homes, two children and a secure job. His children (now aged 17 and 20) take the 7 Up experience in their stride too. The nicest thing for their father is seeing them growing up over the years - in non-speaking roles, part of the fabric of his life.

He can't remember much about the original selection process. "We were just asked if we'd like to be on television and if so to write down what we wanted to do when we grew up. I think I said I wanted to own a big castle." He looks slightly embarrassed recalling the Financial Times comment. "Of course I didn't read the FT. My father did. It was kind of one-upmanship because one of the other boys said he read The Times."

You'd expect something as sweeping as the 7 Up series to define and change someone's life, but not so for Andrew. "It hasn't informed a single decision I've ever made. It's made absolutely no difference." Nor has he ever been criticised, teased or vilified for his role in the series. "People have been kind enough not to be too mean." They don't even call him "posh" any more.

Ask if he's proud about having done the series it, he thinks hard. "That's putting it a bit strongly. I think it's reasonably worthwhile. I'm not ashamed. Oh, OK then, yes, I am grudgingly proud."

Has it embarrassed him? "Yes, I've been embarrassed by lots of things in it. My heart sinks sometimes to think of them. A seven-year-old has no inhibition. You are just a reflection of the people around you."

And that's probably it. The boy who boasted about reading the FT and wanting to own castles has turned into a quieter, much more modest man. If the 7 Up chronicles show you anything, they show you that people can change, that the camera is selective, that in 40 years, arrogant, brash kids turn into reflective, more humble adults. And the opposite might equally be true.

'What we are doing is truthful and honourable'

Apart from the subjects of the films, there is one other constant figure in the extraordinary social experiment that began with 7 Up in 1964, and that is the 49 Up director, Michael Apted.

He was 22 and fresh out of Cambridge when he worked as a researcher on 7 Up. Seven years later, he was the director of the follow-up (called Seven Plus Seven), and he has directed every programme in the series since. Now 64, Apted can reflect on a career in which he has become an established Hollywood director, whose numerous credits include Gorillas in the Mist, The Coal Miner's Daughter and the James Bond film The World is Not Enough. Plenty more projects beckon, but it's the 7 Up series that is likely to prove his lasting legacy.

The sheer longevity of the project makes it unique in broadcasting history, and an emotional challenge for Apted every time it comes round. "Working on 49 Up took more out of me than the other programmes," he said last week. "It doesn't seem to have the optimism of 42 Up. Some stories are more cheerful, but there's a reflectiveness about it that wasn't there before. I suppose as people get older they carry more baggage with them."

Something else happened between 42 Up and 49 Up, and that was the rise of reality TV. It made Apted's life harder in two ways: first, he found himself having to defend the 7 Up series against the charge that it was no more than a glorified Big Brother; second, there were 49 Up subjects who suddenly saw themselves in a Big Brother light, and needed extra persuasion to stick with the series. That Apted succeeded in keeping them on board - and in one instance persuaded someone who had dropped out to re-join - is clear from the fact that the 12 participants in 49 Up represents the highest number to have taken part in any programme since the last time the original 14 children were all together, in 21 Up.

As for the reality TV accusation, Apted is wearily dismissive. "I'm always disappointed when the R word comes up," he said. "Reality TV is purely commercial, exploitative, cheap entertainment. I like to think that what we are doing is truthful and honourable. The real difference is that I don't manufacture an environment. These people are simply living their lives." Simon O'Hagan

'49 Up' is on ITV1 on Thursday at 9pm

Comments