The introduction of lightweight 16mm film cameras and smaller, synchronous sound equipment in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the increasing speed of films which enabled most scenes to be filmed in natural light, allowed the documentarist to penetrate into previously unfilmable areas. These technological changes helped to create new forms of documentary-making in British Free Cinema, American Direct Cinema and French Cinéma Vérité, with an emphasis on location filming, spontaneity and intimacy rather than staged situations and didactic commentary.
Seven Up! was partly a product of these technological changes and their transition to television. The film offers unprecedented glimpses into the daily routines of children, albeit sometimes through reenactments. It shows Neil skipping down a suburban street in his duffle coat, and doing free movement to music in a PE lesson; Suzy surreptitiously scratching her nose in ballet class; John, Andrew and Charles singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in Latin; and Tony acting as milk monitor and being told off for turning round in a lesson. There are impressionistic snatches of children’s lives in the form of playground fights, skipping games, communal school dinners and the queue for Saturday morning pictures. In one scene, the camera even adopts Tony’s eye view as he moves across the schoolyard and into a line of pupils. The film thus attempts to use the new technological sophistication of documentary-making to examine children’s culture on its own terms, in the manner of Iona and Peter Opie’s influential book, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), which sees the initiation rites and secret languages of the playground as expressions of a tribal culture with its own hierarchies and meanings.