63 Up’s Aussie battler Paul Kligerman on the call he dreads each seven years

Every seven years, Paul Kligerman gets a familiar pang of anxiety as the production team for the world's longest-running documentary gets in touch, hoping to secure his participation for the next instalment of the Up series.

"I'm always a bit hesitant about doing it," says Kligerman, who turned 63 on Thursday. "I always feel like I don't want to do it, but I know I'm not alone there. Everyone's got a little bit of, 'Oh, do I really want to do this again?' It's not normal for most of us; I don't think there's too many on the show who seek publicity."

Paul Kligerman in 63 Up.Credit:SBS

Kligerman, who lives in Melbourne with his wife of 40 years, Susie, says that when he was younger, he used to "worry about everything". Even now, he says, if he spent too much time thinking about the fact he's about to provide an update on his life to date – and whether or not he managed to shake off the constraints of the English class system, into the lower reaches of which he was born – "it would severely stress me out". But as with many other things in life, he says, he years ago "just came to terms with the fact it was going to happen".

When Seven Up was filmed in 1963, with its interviews of 14 seven-year-old children from opposite ends of the class spectrum, Kligerman was living in a children's home in the east end of London as his parents fought a bitter custody battle. A year or so later, he moved to Australia with his father, where he spent time in another children's home.

"He was a coat and dress designer, trying to set a house up, that's just the way they chose to do it," he explains in the latest series, 63 Up. "He was a kind man. He was strict but kind."

In the final episode, which airs on SBS on Monday, Kligerman tears up as he talks about his late father. Whatever impact the time he spent in those children’s homes had on him, he doesn’t appear to bear any sort of grudge.

Kligerman, right, as a seven year old in 7 Up.Credit:SBS

He does, however, describe himself as lacking confidence. "You second-guess yourself all the time," he tells Michael Apted, who was a researcher on the first series and has directed every instalment since.

For Apted and his co-creators – the show was the brainchild of Australian-born journalist Tim Hewat, and originally directed by Paul Almond – the documentary started as an expose of the pernicious impacts of the class system.

"The first one was a very vivid way of showing people how crass and dangerous and unfair the class system was," says Apted down the line from Los Angeles. "You could have thousands of pieces of government paper saying this and that, but having those 14 children on television to a huge audience was pretty startling for your average British viewer."

Over time, it became evident that the class system was beginning to break down, or at least loosen its grip.

Paul Kligerman in 21 Up.

"As it went on you could see things were changing, and they clearly weren't changing for the worse," says Apted. "Nothing is perfect, but people were getting a shot to do what they wanted to do."

But did the series merely chart that change or did it contribute to it?

"Both, I think," Apted says. "It showed it and I think it helped wake people up to the dangers of the education system and the way it was all determined by class. People saw it was a staggering waste of talent and not a good way to bring up the country."

Of course, moving to Australia took Kligerman out of the clutches of class to some degree. Here, he found work in the building trade; now he's a maintenance man at a retirement village in Melbourne's eastern suburbs.

Paul and Susie with their two children in 2006.Credit:Joe Castro

Whether down to nature or nurture, he says in the show, "I think it was pretty obvious [at seven] I was going to be just a worker". But, he adds, he's just fine with that.

And if Apted and co were to come calling again in another seven years?

"It's pointless me saying no," he says. "My wife would never forgive me, and a couple of the grandchildren are really interested in the program, so there's that incentive for me to do it, too."

Besides, he adds, after all these years, "I am getting used to it".

The final episode of 63 Up, featuring Paul Kligerman, screens on SBS on Monday at 7.30pm. The entire Up series can be seen on SBS On Demand.

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