Directed by Paul Almond, the film used as its jumping point the Jesuit adage, "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." Would the dreams and wishes of these seven-year-olds manifest as destiny in their later years? And would British society accommodate or stifle their opportunities?
Michael Apted, a researcher on the first film, returned to these same 14 boys and girls every seven years to discover how their lives have progressed, as they aged, married, had children of their own, and suffered the travails of life - illness, infidelity, divorce, the deaths of parents and loved ones. The latest chapter, "56 Up," continues their stories.
Researcher Michael Apted interviewed the children for the first film, and was struck by how Britain's class system seemed to have shaped them, even at that age: "It was very funny, the original [film], but it was also alarming," Apted told CBS News' Lee Cowan. "You could see that people's views of the world were totally determined by where they were coming from. And those who had somewhat impoverished backgrounds had a very narrow view of the world. And those who were in power had this grand view, not just of the world, but of their lives."
He was so struck by what they said that he vowed to track the same group down, every seven years, ever since. The result is a landmark series - "7 Plus Seven," "21 Up," "28 Up," "35 Up," "42 Up," "49 Up," and now "56 Up" - that critic Roger Ebert calls one of the best films of all time.
When asked about the series' continuing appeal Apted said, "People identify with it. I think you see 13, 14 stories up there, and there's elements in some of them that hit home on every life. Everybody who watches it can identify with something."
Over the years audiences have watched Nick move to America (becoming a professor at the University of Wisconsin), get married, have a son, get divorced, and get married again.
"Do you regret doing it as you look back?" asked Cowan.
"No, I don't," Nick replied. "It would be kind of pathetic to opt out of it. Even if it's painful, it's interesting, and it's important."
"Have you told Michael [Apted] how painful it is?"
"Oh, he knows!" Nick said.
From the beginning, Tony seemed to relish appearing in the series: "I'm very lucky to have that documentation of my life," Tony told CBS News.
Not that he's had an easy go of it. At 42 he admitted, on camera, to having an affair.
Still married, Tony and Debbie are now proud grandparents, sharing their London home with several of their kids, and owning a second home in Spain. But as we learn in "56 Up," the sour economy has scuttled Tony's real estate development plans.
In "56 Up," Suzy and Rupert are still married and have two grown sons and a daughter. She works as a bereavement counselor.
Suzy had said that "49 Up" would be her last interview because she "hates" the intrusions, but she appears again in "56 Up," which she credits to a "ridiculous sense of loyalty."
Peter subsequently studied law and joined the civil service. He is married with two teenage children.
Peter returned to the series in "56 Up," promoting his award-winning country-western band, the Good Intentions.
Andrew attended Cambridge University and eventually became partner at a law firm, and prior to "35 Up" got married. In "56 Up" Andrew's wife of 28 years, Jane, talks of wanting a career after raising their two boys.
In 1964 the three girls attended the same elementary school in a working-class neighborhood in London. Jackie had divorced by the age of 35 and was a single mother. During filming of "56 Up" her ex died from injuries suffered in a car accident, but Jackie also saw the birth of her first grandchild.
At 24 Sue married and gave up her job to raise two children. By "42 Up" she had divorced and was supporting her family on her own. In "56 Up" Sue is still employed in the administrative department of a law school - and is engaged.
Lynn (who as a child said she wanted to work at Woolworth's) became a librarian, a profession she continued until recently, when she lost her job because of budget cuts. She is still married to her husband Russ; they have several grandchildren.
Symon was married with five children by the time "28 Up" aired. By the next film he was divorced. By "42 Up" he had remarried and had a four-year-old son. Today Symon (a forklift operator) and his wife Vienetta have trained to become foster parents.
In "56 Up," Paul - still married, with five grandchildren - works at a senior center.
John had bowed out of "42 Up," but returned in "49 Up." In "56 Up" he talked of being misrepresented as upper-class and privileged by the films, explaining that his father died when he was nine, his mother worked to support the family, and he had attended Oxford University on scholarship.
After graduating from Oxford, Bruce did teach in Bangladesh and in London's East End where, by "42 Up," he had met a fellow teacher and married (a wedding featured on the series). They now have two children.
Bruce, who now teaches at the prestigious St. Albans school, told the Guardian newspaper that he has not minded being part of the series, and admitted that he has made comments about family members that he may have regretted - particularly about the circumstances of his attending boarding school. But he said his father was proud of the program, his sons love it, his wife accepts it, and the boys he teaches only gently kid him about it.
At age 35 he was writing, and by 42 - with the help of fellow "Up" participant Bruce - he had found some stability. He eventually entered local politics, working as a Liberal Democrat councilor in the London suburb of Hackney, later taking a similar position in the Northwest.
And despite his comments about God and religion in earlier films, "56 Up" shows Neil working in a local church.
Michael Apted says he'll keep the series going as long as everyone is willing, and healthy. The thought of his subjects getting terminally ill, he says, is too much to bear: "I don't know how I'd deal with it until I have to. Hopefully I won't have to deal with it - hopefully I'll go first."
His goal: to keep doing the "Up" films until his little film family are in their 80s. "When I do 84, I'll be 99. So that could be a nice swan song, shouldn't it?" he laughed.
For more info:
"56 Up" (Official website)
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan