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What the "Up" Series Reveals About Personality Change

An interview with series producer Claire Lewis about what she's learned.

 Courtesy of BritBox
Michael Apted (Director), Claire Lewis (Producer), and George Jesse Turner (Cinematographer).
Source: Courtesy of BritBox

The documentary Seven Up!, which featured 14 seven-year-old British children from varied backgrounds and social classes, aired in 1964. The creators of the documentary at the time couldn't have imagined that it would become a celebrated ongoing series, lasting more than 50 years, releasing new installments every seven years.

The latest installment, 63 Up, originally aired in 2019 and is now available to stream on BritBox.

The Up series was never intended to be a scientific study. And although the sample size of the group is small, Up’s longevity and its use of in-depth interviews set it apart from most psychological studies of personality change which rely primarily on personality tests. As a result, the series offers an insightful complement to scientific research on personality change.

Decades of personality research has found that people’s personalities are pretty set by early adulthood, but not completely. On average, people’s personality traits change gradually with age, with one analysis of 92 studies reporting a small increase in extraversion, conscientiousness, and emotional stability as people get older. Watching the Up series (and it's worth mentioning that you can understand and appreciate 63 Up without watching the earlier installments) allows you to witness some of these effects.

I spoke with Up producer Claire Lewis to learn more about the making of the series and to hear her thoughts and observations on its psychological implications. Lewis began working on the Up series starting with 28 Up and stayed with the project (along with director Michael Apted, who died in January 2021) ever since.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

On the stability of personality

Alan Jern

There have been these long-term psychology studies and they've mostly shown that people's personalities are relatively stable, but they can change a little bit. I'm curious about your observations with this group of people. What have you noticed about their personalities and how they have changed over time?

Claire Lewis

Well, short answer, in my experience is very little. I, having done a lot of child development and teaching and had four children of my own, genuinely believe the Jesuit kind of maxim, "give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man."

I think a child's personality, on the whole, is more or less set by the time that they're seven-ish. Yes, you get a lot of difficult and different behavior in adolescence and up until the late teens. But when you look at our cohort of children, the noisy ones are noisy, the shy ones are shy, the quiet ones are quiet, the funny ones are funny. And that has stayed with them on the whole throughout their lives. And I think that that's very interesting that our study — which wasn't really a study at all, there's nothing scientific about it, it was just a television program about social class — I think on the whole, it's definitely the personality that tends to stay with you.

Whether being in Up affected the participants

Alan Jern

You mentioned that this project wasn't an experiment. Obviously, that's true, it was never intended to be. One way it differed from a true experiment is that it was kind of open to the world, like, it appeared on TV, and the people in it became somewhat famous. Do you think that in any way that might have actually changed the course of their lives?

Claire Lewis

I think it has in some cases, and in others, not at all. I think one of the things it's done to the working-class kids, the kids with less opportunities, less educational opportunities, from a background where they haven't got parents who've gone to college, I think for those children, it opened windows for them. It was a window into the world that they would never have had in a million years.

Courtesy of BritBox
Source: Courtesy of BritBox

With Tony, for example, I'm absolutely convinced. And I know he agrees that getting involved in acting and being in films and wanting to do that was pure. Suddenly, it was his world. Whereas for most kids from a background like that, it would not be their world, they would never have any chance to get near it. So, in that sense, that gave him an opportunity that he would never have had before. I think that perhaps for the working-class girls, for Jackie and Sue, it was a snapshot, it was a view into a middle-class world that they didn't necessarily have.

I think for the upper-middle-class and the middle-class youngsters who were high achievers already or went to smart schools, they had their lives planned out for them, I think it's made very little difference to the way their lives have panned out most of them. You know, a group of them have done exactly what they said they were going to do when they were 7, and then 14 and then 21.

But I think it's really because seven years in between each program is a very long time. It's not like we're going back every year to make programs about them. In the course of that seven years, first of all, when they're young, 7, 14 and 21 — huge, absolutely huge gaps. You know, you change from being a child, and then a teenager, into an adult. And that's a lifetime at that age.

Tony did once say to me that he thought that being in the film kept him on the straight and narrow. And Michael picked Tony because he was convinced that Tony was going to end up in jail.

And Tony knew that and in the last film they talked about it. And Michael said, "Yeah, I got you wrong. I, you know, I took him on a tour of the East End when we did 21 because I thought you'd end up in jail. And you didn't." And Tony then said to me privately, "You know, that's one of the reasons I think I didn't go off the straight and narrow.” Instead, he went into acting and creative things that he might not have done.

 Courtesy of BritBox
Tony Walker.
Source: Courtesy of BritBox

Alan Jern

That does seem like one example of potentially how his involvement in the show —

Claire Lewis

Yeah, potentially his involvement in the show was — but that's partly because it was something new for him. You know, it wasn't a normal thing for a working-class kid from a background like his to ever have anything to do with. It kind of equates with the whole idea of the transformative quality of art. For children who are introduced to art and writing and ways of expressing themselves from a very deprived background, it changes them. It gives them a new look and a new view of the world and a way in which they think they could live their lives.

What made the original Up a unique success

Alan Jern

Knowing what you know now, after having worked on this series for so long, if you were to start it over, what would you do differently?

Claire Lewis

Well, they have started it over in the UK. They started 7Up 2000. The BBC was so upset at not actually having this film that was a BBC film, they decided to start their own, which they did with the help of Granada.

And, of course, it's a very interesting question. Well, you have to do it differently today because of diversity, because of representation. Because of all the things that we now regard as important in terms of representation, and ethnic minorities, etc. But actually, that's what they've done for 7Up 2000 at the BBC. And it hasn't improved at all the end result, in the sense that it's made it harder to make these films. Because when Michael went out with his team, and Paul Almond to make Seven Up! in 1963, there were no rules of any description. They never even thought about whether they should have equal numbers of men and women, there was no women's lib, there was no consciousness of anything like that. They just went out and picked the most interesting kids they could find from very different backgrounds.

Now, the simplicity of that means that we ended up actually with a really random group. When you start selecting for certain things like diversity — are they good at music? And can they do ballet? You start selecting down and down and down and they become much less random, much less of a cross section. Michael felt very strongly about this. So even though the selection of our kids was far from perfect, because they should have had at least four or five more girls, what they did end up with was a proper cross section randomly picked.

And if I did it now — I wouldn't do it now because I wouldn't be allowed to do it in the way I'd want to do it. I would kind of want to do it as they did, but a bit more fairly in 1963.

I finished by asking about the future of the series. Lewis said it was ultimately up to the people in the films. But she concluded by saying: "Honestly, who knows. I suspect ITV will want to make it. And I know a lot of people will want to see it ... Let's just see. I really genuinely don't know."

You can stream all installments of the Up series on BritBox.