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The Up Series: Seven Disc Special Edition

Director: Paul Almond and Michael Apted
Cast: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, Peter Davies, John Brisby, Suzanne Dewey, Charles Furneaux, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kilgerman, Susan Sullivan, and Tony Walker

(US DVD: 2 Jul 2013)

Indestructible Birthrights

In 1964, the Left-leaning investigative series World in Action unwittingly launched its most popular franchise: the Up series. Originally intended as a standalone show, Seven Up introduced audiences to the lives of 14 seven-year-old children who were mainly from the upper and lower margins of society. Although never explicitly stated, the show investigated the regimentation of the class system in England, pondering if the children’s early social station in their lives might dictate their future courses.


After the popularity of the first television film, Michael Apted became the series producer and director who filmed the original 14 children at seven year intervals to follow their developments. He states in the DVD commentary, “Class is still the spine of the film, but its power is elsewhere.” He locates this “elsewhere” in the series’ humanistic approach through the emotional identification generated by following the personal, professional, and familial developments of the films’ participants. Although Apted says the series has been critiqued for not offering enough societal and historical background to situate its people’s lives, he asserts that the political periodically manifests itself through their individual stories.


This in part explains the series’ immense success. Apted originally thought non-British audiences wouldn’t care for the program since they lacked the nuanced understanding of the British class system that would help them in making sense of its participants’ lives. But after being persuaded to screen some of the films in the States and witnessing its resulting popularity, Apted claimed he had to re-evaluate the film he was making as also “humanistic” in approach. As a result, the series appeals to class-oblivious audiences through its humanistic focus upon the developments of a select group of individuals and their families, as well as interest more politically-minded audiences who can read the subtle class cues throughout the films that impact its participants’ lives.


In general, the participants of the Up series are class-aligned in the following manner. Bruce Balden, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Charles Furneaux, and Suzanne Dewey all belong to the upper-class. Symon Basterfield, Jacqueline Bassett, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kilgerman, Susan Sullivan, Nicohlas Hitchon, and Tony Walker comprise the series’ working-class participants. Only Peter Davies and Neil Hughes are from the middle-class. Tellingly, having the majority of its participants from the upper-and-lower classes allows the series to better stress this divide.


Not surprisingly, throughout their 56 years, most of the participants remain firmly entrenched in their class position. At age seven, John, Charles, and Andrew contemplate their future trajectories into the elite university system. They eventually attend such universities and hold respective jobs as a barrister, a television producer, and solicitor.


Tony, on other hand, a kid from London’s East End, voices at age 14 his desire to become a jockey. Apted asks him what would happen if he failed in this dream. Tony briefly contemplates the possibility of such failure and says that he would probably then become a cab driver. We then watch Tony fail at jockeying and become a cabbie, albeit a well-paid one who can eventually afford a second house in Spain when he is 49. But even in spite of his decent salary, Tony is revealed to remain firmly ensconced within a working-class sensibility as he xenophobically pines for the good old days before the East End became overrun by immigrants.


The series reveals that class has little-to-nothing to do with income and is more about a system of relations. As E.P. Thompson observed in his magisterial work The Making of the English Working Class: “If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition” (11). In many ways, this definition well defines the orientation of the series, too: class comes to forefront by juxtaposing the participants in relation to one another, as well as seeing their developments over seven year intervals.


Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the series is the ways in which its people wrestle with the contradictions generated by a society that defines achievement through individual terms while it at the same time clearly favors the rich over the poor through its multiple classist institutions like school, family, and social services.


Jackie, Lynn, and Sue, all childhood friends, also grew-up in the East End. Apted frequently asks them if they feel they had a lack of opportunity due to their working-class backgrounds. In 21 Up, Apted questions them as they sit around a pub table if they feel they had the same social opportunities as upper-class Suzy. Jackie asserts, “I’ve had the opportunities in life that I wanted.” Lynn continues, “I say I had more opportunities than her in a different aspect from what she’s had. I had been able to do more or less what I had wanted to do.” In 28 Up , the women assert a similar position. Susan states, “I think that we all could have gone in the way we wanted to at the time within our capabilities. We chose our own jobs.”


Interesting to note is the way the women qualify their answers. They never directly address systemic class barriers, but instead pose their choices as individual decisions embedded within a specific context. Jackie claims that she had the opportunities in life that she wanted, which evades the question if she had the same privileges of Suzy. Lynn qualifies her opportunities of doing “more or less” what she desired. Susan also qualifies her observations that she had access to different opportunities “at the time” and “within our capabilities.” The women evade the systemic class pressures that manifest themselves in the series as we watch people like Suzy, Andrew, Charles, and John rise while some of the others struggle to make ends meet.


Suzy becomes a particularly salient contrast against these three women. Manicured at expensive boarding schools throughout her childhood, she nonetheless drops out of college to bum around in France during her late teens and early 20s. Yet by the age of 28, she is married to a solicitor and living a posh upper-class life. By age 42, she pursues a career in bereavement counseling. 


The two of the three working-class women, on the other hand, who doggedly worked throughout their lives, constantly find themselves in precarious economic straits. By 35 Up Jackie is divorced raising a toddler. Since she abandoned a career when she married, she must resort to a low-wage job as bartender. Her situation increasingly worsens as she has two more kids, another failed relationship, and severe rheumatoid arthritis sets in that leave her permanently disabled. In 56 Up she is on the verge of losing her disability benefits due to the austerity policies of Prime Minister David Cameron. 


Lynn remains married. Yet due to cuts in government spending both in the ‘80s under Thatcher and the ‘00s under Blair, she loses her job respectively as a mobile bus librarian and then as a special needs librarian. Lynn laments, “They haven’t got a clue as to what they’re doing. With no leftwing Labor Party any more. Tony Blair saw to that. They all lean to the right.”


This scene provides a core example of how the politics of the time manifest themselves through individual stories. It reveals the extremely conservative moment: what now passes itself off as a “liberal” party as nothing more than a cheap replication of the extreme rightwing policies that Margaret Thatcher introduced during the ‘80s. Furthermore, we see how such policies disproportionately negatively impact the working-class as crucial benefits and steady incomes vanish, leading to a downward trajectory of poverty and dependency on already strapped family members.


As time passes, the working-class women become more direct about the ways in which the class system had constrained them. In 35 Up, Susan admits, “We only had a limited choice to be fair.” The other two agree. At the end of 42 Up Apted asks all of its participants if they feel they live in a class-driven society. Susan mentions how she has met upper-class people at her work at a local university. She notes, “Their lifestyle..  they describe things… and you know you will never be a part of that circle. But do you want to be?” Her inability to even describe the specificities of such a lifestyle suggests the distance between their two worlds. Rather than ignoring such class divisions as she did when she was younger, Susan now claims that perhaps she wouldn’t want to be a part of that set even if she could—without explaining exactly why.


John becomes the most confrontational about the documentary’s emphasis upon class relations. In spite of his boarding school background and entry into Oxford, he defensively tells Apted in 28 Up, “I wouldn’t say I’ve been unduly privileged.” He then expands upon his problem with the series framing of himself, Charles, and Andrew: “The show didn’t show the sleepless nights, the poring over our books, all the sweat and toil that got us to university. It was presented as if it was just part of some indestructible birthright that went to all these places. And I thought that was unfair.”


Although he has a point about the series never showing the intense labor of the three men in their studies and their work that assists with their success, John’s reliance upon a meritocratic outlook reveals his own upper-class position that usually justifies inequality as somehow an accurate barometer of individual’s intelligence and drive. He tellingly asserts in 21 Up that “people who work in a factory can send their children to university… They don’t chose to do so.”


Such a statement naïvely suggests that money serves as the primary obstacle to upper-class education for working-class youth. It fails to address the gaping cultural differences between lower-class and upper-class cultures whereby the former often dismisses education as a wasteful endeavor and prioritizes manual labor over that of intellectual labor. This is precisely Paul Willis’s point in Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. He identifies primary schooling as a class battlefield that slots working-class kids in dull, vocational classes that are not there to primarily train them in industry, but instead to convince them in the irrelevancy of education. As a result, their eventual dropping-out of school seems a voluntary act of rebellion on their own part rather than a predestined purge by the system to perpetuate an unjust class system.


Individual choice, in other words, must appear to be the primary reason for such a rejection rather than class-based inequities that angle working-class youth in a disadvantageous educational position. Individual choice is precisely the reasoning that John adopts to continue ignoring class-based inequities.


As the series progresses, it becomes increasingly self-reflective as more of its participants question how they have been framed throughout it. Jackie confronts Apted in 49 Up by observing: “You will edit this program as you see fit. I’ve got no control over that. You definitely come across as this is your idea of what you want to do and how you see us and that’s how you portray us. This might be the first one that is about us rather than your perspective of us.” When he asks how he has gotten her wrong, she replies, “I’m more intellectual than you thought I would be.”


Such moments like this rejuvenate the Up series rather conservative form of an endless deluge of talking heads. Although such a style stresses the physical changes of the participants and their subtle body language as they speak, it nonetheless seems anchored in a somewhat outdated style that marks its roots within ‘60s British television. Its self-reflective moments, however, question its form. First of all, it forces Apted to at least be questioned back by his subjects. Although he still never appears before the camera, he is forced to justify his choices. This subsequently challenges the naturalist form of documentary that at times seems to assert that reality simply unfolds itself before the camera. Jackie’s words question the entire documentary impulse and legitimacy of the series by suggesting that it is more a projection of Apted’s than an objective capturing of 14 individuals’ lives on screen.


She has a point. Apted subtly shapes the questions and framing along his own classist background. He repetitively asks the working-class participants if they are disappointed if their children haven’t attended university. This automatically places them on the defensive and seems to imply that lack of university degree suggests some kind of deeper failure that is never specified. Apted notes his willful shaping of the material on the DVD commentary when recounting how he had Tony drive his cab around the more depressed areas of London 21 Up in the expectation that his life would inevitably lead to ways of crime and such a shot would provide a connective link to later episodes. Apted was proven wrong.


In 56 Up, Suzy and Nicholas both critique Apted’s limited coverage of their lives. Suzy states, “You don’t get a very rounded picture. We would have to be on for a couple of months to get a real perception.” Nicholas stresses how hollowed-out he feels after watching each film. He can’t help but ask himself, “Is that all there is to me?” But he then asserts more philosophic distance that seems to well summarize the series: “It’s how a person, any person, might change. It’s not an accurate picture of me. But it’s a picture of somebody.”


Additionally, the series becomes increasingly interesting in how it establishes its own sense of community by drawing people together who would have most likely never have met otherwise. 42 Up brings together Neil, the perpetual drifter of the series who is plagued with clinical depression, and Bruce, an upper-class school teacher who has dedicated most of his time teaching disadvantaged youth. They apparently met for dinner after the filming of 21 Up, and for a brief while Neil roomed with Bruce. It also seems that Bruce renewed Neil’s Christian faith.


56 Up reveals the friendship between Nicholas and Suzy who both had rural upbringings. Suzy notes how after a 21 Up party, she felt most closely connected to Nicholas: “you just stuck out as the one person I had more in common with and spoke to the most.”  This is an interesting observation since they occupy completely opposite ends of the class spectrum. Suzy was sheltered in a wealthy bucolic life at her family’s country manor whereas Nicholas grew-up as a rural peasant, fearful of falling into an unrelenting farming lifestyle that crippled his father. Yet both were surrounded by a provincial world that they desired to escape. And both also longed for the country as they got older.


This is the one moment of the Up series that marks a temporary transcendence of class limits. Nicholas’s full scholarship to Oxford initially allowed him entry into the cultural capital that Suzy’s world takes for granted. The series furthermore provided a connection between them both. But one suspects that if Nicholas didn’t have an Oxford pedigree, Suzy would not have so readily found as much common interest with him. Nicholas must enter her world. The reverse will never happen.


Yet one moment during their shared interview ruptures to expose their class differences. Nicholas speaks about how Suzy might have pushed herself harder when she was younger if she was forced to support herself. She replies, “Yes, I suppose that is true. But at the age of 11, 12, 13 are you really aware of that?” Nicholas pauses, smiles, and comments, “Now that’s a very telling question. In my world, you betch’a.” 


In this simple exchange, we become aware of the privilege that undergirds Suzy’s life that allowed her to roam aimlessly during her youth yet land securely on her feet during her mid-20s. Yet all the way back to Seven Up, we witness Nicholas imagining escaping his rural life as he reveals how he would like to have a holiday in the city away from the country. By age 14, he asserts that he sees farming as a weight to be escaped rather than a tradition to be continued. He bleakly observes, “I don’t think my father wanted to be a farmer. He got stuck with it.” He was already making sure that he didn’t fall into the same trap. For Suzy, on the other hand, such limits failed to exist at all since, as the series repeatedly emphasizes, class privileges far exceed the amount one has in the bank and the paycheck one earns. They are intertwined throughout all of our daily practices and crystalize in our very identities.


The Up series serves as a remarkable document in the ways in which a series of 14 individuals navigate the classist structures that orient their lives. By offering brief sketches of the contours of their everyday lives, the series refuses to descend into proselytizing dogma about class by instead revealing the intricate ways in which class defines our relationships with each other and ourselves. This is not to argue for a reductive assessment of these people’s lives, since the series fully reveals class conditions far exceed simple economics—although economics is not entirely irrelevant, either. Overall, it documents how a group of people attempt to maintain their dignity, self-respect, and mutual humanity in a classist system that often reduces each side to a simple stereotype. Yet, at the same time, it refuses to jettison the idea that class has an over-determining relation upon each character’s life.


The Up series dialectically balances the integrity of individual lives with the classist social practices that inscribe them. Apted’s excellent commentary on 42 Up explicitly relates both of these concerns. Perhaps most remarkably, the series illustrates E.P. Thompson’s observation that “class is defined by men [and women] as they live their own history.” It’s a brief glimpse of these histories that the Up collection has provided.

Rating:

Chris Robé is an associate professor of film and media studies. He's written for various journals such as Jump Cut, Cinema Journal, Framework, and The Velvet Light Trap. His monograph Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Left Film Culture was published by University of Texas Press. In his spare time he agitates for his friendly faculty union. He is currently researching contemporary media activist formations from the 1970s to the present.


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