49 UP! Their Stories Marked the Birth of Reality TV. Now, Believe It or Not, the Children Whose Lives So Enthralled Britain Aged Seven Are Nearly 50. So Just What Has Happened to Them?
Byline: TOM RAWSTORNE
THERE are just minutes to go before school starts and seven yearold Tony Walker is running an errand for his mum, Nelly. It's off to the newsagent's for a packet of five Players Weights and then back to the small block of flats in Bethnal Green in the heart of London's East End.
When he returns, a length of string is hanging from a window of the Walkers' third-floor council flat and Tony expertly attaches the cigarettes to it.
'Go on then, Tone, or you'll be late,' Nelly shouts, hauling up her ciggies as the youngest of her four children disappears around the corner in a blur.
That was more than 40 years ago but to this day the memory of the young Tony - a bundle of Cockney confidence complete with grazed knees, cropped hair and broad grin - lives on.
And so, too, do the memories of the rest of his life. Of his dreams of becoming a jockey, of the race he rode alongside Lester Piggott, and of the day he realised he would never make the big time and chucked in the horses to become a London cabbie. Then there's his 28-year marriage to Debbie (complete with rocky patch), his devotion to his family and the unremitting graft that lifted him from a life of grinding poverty to one of foreign holidays, home ownership and middleclass solidity.
Sound familiar? Well, Tony is one of the star turns of Britain's unique series of TV documentaries, the first of which, 7 Up, was made in 1963 and broadcast the following year.
Featuring 14 boys and girls from all walks of life, it was groundbreaking television, the first example of a programme recording real people living real lives. And every seven years since, the cameras have returned to chart the children's progress.
Next week, the latest instalment, 49 Up, will be screened on ITV1 and this gang of grownups will once again return to the nation's living rooms. Tony's as honest (and as sentimental) as ever. But this time there's a hitherto unseen side to this happy-go-lucky character - smouldering disillusionment.
Brought up to believe you get what you deserve, he is so unhappy with the changing face of our 'politically correct' society that London's best-known black cab driver is considering moving abroad.
'I love London, it is where I was born and where my roots are, but for me it's just not the same. My old school has been knocked down, my old house has been knocked down, the park where I used to play has had the lido pulled up.
'It's all gone to cater for other people. It's sad to say, but it's got to the stage where for the first time in my life I feel like an outsider.'
Devised as an examination of the rigid class structures of the early 1960s, the idea behind the 7 Up series was to test the Jesuit maxim: 'Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man.' And so the initial documentary featured 14 seven-year-old boys and girls drawn from both ends of the social spectrum.
There was the trio of privately educated sons who seemed destined to succeed, and there was young Tony - supposedly earmarked for a life of working-class toil.
Indeed, as Michael Apted - who took over the project after the first programme - has admitted, he expected Tony to fulfil the East End stereotype and turn to crime.
So sure was Apted of this that, in 21 Up, he tried to 'set up' Tony by filming him driving around East London pointing out the Krays' favourite haunts.
'I thought he'd end up in trouble, probably in and out of prison,' admits Apted, who is now based in Hollywood and whose feature films include Gorky Park, The World Is Not Enough and Gorillas In The Mist.
'It was my pathetic attempt to plan ahead and lie in wait for him. But I was wrong. His working-class roots became a source of strength.' The fact that they did, says Tony, was thanks entirely to his mother.
For while she struggled to bring up her three sons and daughter, her husband John was constantly in trouble with the police. …