A few months ago, I delved into Britain’s “Up” Series, which began in 1964 with director/narrator Michael Apted (who now has over 40 years of credits that range from ‘Coronation Street’ to ‘The World is Not Enough’) interviewing and videotaping a group of 7-year old children from a range of social backgrounds throughout England. From the one-room schooled farm boy to the Cambridge-bound financial-times reading ‘gentleman’, Apted candidly asked them their opinions on marriage, work, race, class systems and their plans for the future. He continued to find and check in on their altered (or sometimes not) views and experiences every 7 years. This year they are 56 years old and thus I had the pleasure of re-watching the newest film release, 56 Up’.
Is this a brilliant premise or what? I certainly think so. As a bit of an obsessive compulsive television watcher, when I first found out about the series, I decided to watch every episode over the course of one day. I recommend this only if you are desirous of a personal existential crisis. Witnessing the growth, marriage, divorce, weight and hair fluctuation, child-bearing, and temperament altering experiences of fourteen children over 49 years is, simply put, exhausting. I do however, highly recommend watching these as perhaps a normal person would, ie. one every few months. Who could not benefit from witnessing and reflecting on the choices we all make by being able to see their effects way down the line? If we choose to, we as an audience can also speculate as to which characteristics we are born with, be they a cheeriness of the soul, or a contemplative pious nature, and how they can remain relatively unchanged from child to adult.
Although I would love to complete an in-depth update of every person and who they became, whether they followed their original seven-year-old dreams of working with ‘the moon and stuff’ or proclamations of ‘not particularly liking children’ (hint: one of these came partially true and its not the one you think!), I truly want you the viewer to experience it yourself. The revelations and disappointments are up there in filmic shocker history with Darth Vader being daddy or Bruce Willis being a ghost.
56 appears to be a relatively calm age for most of the participants. They have settled into their family lives or solitude with a deeper understanding of who they are. Many, understandably, show huge resistance to displaying public regret on the show, such as when Apted asks the east-Londoner questions like ‘do you measure success in terms of money, and therefore are you a success’? Or when he asks the person who has been homeless and unemployed, ‘where do you see yourself in seven years’? These people have been the subject of public speculation for almost half a century. Some have chosen not to appear in certain installments, while others have spoken about their resentment for the program and distaste at the judgment it encourages. Interestingly it is the people who most openly express their stress at the interviews who consistently take part in them, usually with a reluctant shrug of ‘but here I am again’. One participant, who previously refused to be interviewed, returned after the publicity encouraged great success for his charity. This brings up the other strange facet of such a unique sociological experiment, and that is the question of how much the show has actually changed the course of their lives for better or worse?
I hope I’ve given you a taste of this remarkable series without giving too much of the good stuff away. It makes many modern films seem completely empty and unworthy of praise (Sorry ‘Silver Lining’s Playbook’!). Here is raw, honest, painful emotion, documented throughout the most uncomfortable and challenging times in a human’s life, presented on film for us to watch with our crispers and jellybeans in the comfort of our home. It is the first documentary series of its kind and I doubt there will ever be anything quite like it again. As appreciation for the bravery this pioneering group of men and women have shown us, I think we owe them at least the homage of our own self-reflection.