Claire Lewis on why Seven Up has been such a success

It’s worked because as time has progressed, we have progressed to a celebrity culture society. And the most wonderful thing about Seven Up is that it’s not about celebrities. It’s about us – ordinary normal people. And the more we become a celebrity-based culture, the more appealing Seven Up becomes. Because absolutely nobody gives anybody ordinary the time of day, to spend time talking to them about how their lives and their hopes and their dreams and what’s happened to them. So what started out as a look at social class in Britain has now become, and evolved into, an extraordinary history of the development of a person over the years, in an in depth and in a very personal way, of anybody who could be us. The attraction of Seven Up is that everybody can find something in one of our contributors that they agree with and identify with. It’s a film about them. It’s about what’s happened to them, it’s about what they care about, and it’s that’s why it works. And that’s why people love it. Because it’s not about celebrities, it’s about people who could be you or me.
I think the interesting thing to remember about Seven Up is that all our contributors were put into it by their parents when they were seven. None of them signed up to it willingly. I don’t think a single one of them, bar maybe one, would actually take part in it today, would have agreed to do it, as an adult. And so one of the reasons that it’s an achievement, both in television terms and in social history terms, is because we’ve managed to keep the same people on board and the continuity, at a time when the landscape of television changed in the period we’ve been making it. For example, when we did 35 Up, there was no Big Brother, there was no popular reality TV – it didn’t exist. All of a sudden, when we came to make 42 Up and 49 Up, the landscape in TV had completely changed. Big Brother changed everything. Reality TV changed everything. And all of a sudden, our normal contributors, normal people, suddenly panicked. “I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to be in this. We’re not in reality TV. We’re not interested in this.” So we had a really big issue to solve, which is how do we carry on making Seven Up but don’t turn it into a reality TV show where people felt exploited. And they did. And that’s constantly been the issue – it’s how do we preserve the integrity of Seven Up from the beginning – in other words, Tim Hewat’s original integrity of World in Action. How do we preserve that, and keep that going over the years, and not have it become a piece of reality TV. And in fact, when people say, they actually say, a lot of reviewers and television people say, “Oh, of course, Seven Up is the first reality TV programme.” Well, it isn’t really. Because actually the interviews are edited and very specific, so it’s not reality TV – but because it’s about ordinary people, somehow only ordinary people appear in reality TV programmes. You can’t make programmes about ordinary people that aren’t reality TV. And I think that’s pretty scandalous. And Seven Up doesn’t do that. So I think that’s important.

Do they get paid?
Yes, they get paid. They get paid a small amount, not huge. They get paid enough to have a nice holiday. In other words, they get paid for the horrible six months that most of them hate, in and around the production and TX period. And they hate it. Most of them absolutely hate it. They find it disruptive and deeply intrusive, and the fact that we’ve managed to hold onto them is because Michael and I – and the team – have made it our job to do that. And we have the same team, same crew, same cameraman, same soundman, Michael and I, and it’s like being in a family. And it sounds a cliché, but it’s not. I can go seven years without seeing my people, and it’s just like I was there yesterday. And we’d pick up from where we left off, just like a member of the family – and that’s what it’s like.

And you form close relationships.
Very close relationships. With all of them. All of them. It is like family.

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