WASHINGTON — Scrapbooks in the attic have great allure. The 20th Century is the first in which generations have been able to study life-like photographs and films of themselves at various stages in their lives. The camera went the mirror one better.
The fact is used to great advantage in "From 7 Up to 28 Up," the awkwardly titled but completely fascinating British documentary most PBS stations will air tonight (from 8-10 p.m. on Channels 28, 50, 15 and 24).
The film was more than two decades in the making, because the idea of the project was to select a few willing 7-year-old children in 1963 and put them on film at seven-year-intervals as they grew.
Michael Apted, who produced and directed the film for Granada Television, has since gone on to make such Hollywood movies as "Coal Miner's Daughter." But what is interesting, touching and sometimes heartbreaking is what the children in the film have gone on to do since they were first interviewed at age 7.
Bright eyes and great expectations dim as the years pass; some of the children saw the fulfilling lives they predicted for themselves come true, others did not. The film means to be quite specific about social stratification by background, environment and race, but the stories also reflect universal human yearnings and struggles.
"Certain people have more options than others," the interviewer says late in the program. That isn't a very original thesis. But the means to exploring it is. And nothing but film could make it possible to flash through a person's first 28 years of life in just a few seconds, or to contrast someone's attitudes and beliefs as they are modified by time, maturity and a growing if begrudging acceptance of reality.
A smug young lad named Andrew who announces at the age of 7, "I read the Financial Times," and says he wants to go on to Cambridge for his education, does, and becomes a lawyer. A little girl named Suzi who says at 7, "Some boys can be nice, and others can be horrible," and says at 21 that she is "very very cynical" about marriage, marries two years later.
"I don't like babies," she snaps at 21. Cut to: a shot of her first baby cradled in her arms. She has discovered she does like them after all.
Neil, who grew up in a Liverpool suburb, says at the age of 7, "When I get married, I don't want to have any children because they're always doing naughty things and making the house untidy." He says he wants to be an astronaut or, failing that, a bus driver when he grows up. But he never quite does grow up.
At 21 he is a college dropout and an unhappy construction worker, and at 28, an unemployed nomad taking temporary shelter in a mobile home. He says: "I can't see any immediate future at all."
At the outset, the narrator says the original group of children represented "startlingly different backgrounds," but in fact there is little racial or ethnic diversity. While the film may be invalid as a scientific sociological study, however, it has real worth as a human document.
Those who seem to have found the most satisfying lives among the original group of children aren't necessarily the richest or worldliest. Tony wanted to be a jockey, but after three races, he was unable to make it in the profession, so he studied to become a London cabbie instead. He is also taking acting lessons.
Married and the father of two in the most recent footage, Tony seems gratifyingly free of regret or complaint. Suddenly we see him at 7 again, racing out of the back door of his home and falling flat on his face in the yard. He takes the spill and gets right up again, races gamely over to the fence and climbs it. He is on his way to school.
All kinds of questions, many not raised directly by the program, come to mind as one watches: At what age do people stop imagining wonderful lives for themselves and start to settle for something less? What keeps some on a straight course while others drift from their goals and desires?
Probably the most admirable of the biographies is that of Bruce, who at 7 wanted to become a missionary and at 28 is a math teacher in a multi-ethnic London school. He says he enjoys "being a part of people's advancement."
And there's also Nick, a farmer's son who dreamily talked of the moon as a youth and is now a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin.
The film makers could be considered sexist since boys outnumber girls in their study and they seem to ask the women mainly about maternal matters. But the film still stands as a remarkable and virtually incomparable experience, and the capper to another terrific year of public television.