[14 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We all like to think that, as we grow, we become different people. Not totally unique to those childhood roots that form us, but a more divergent, complex reflection of our initial self. As time passes, we’re rewarded with insight and wisdom, the building blocks of maturity, and by the crossroads of adulthood, those terrible in-between days of adolescence and the age of majority, we figure we’re finished. This may explain why the responsibilities of a post-degree world so readily slap us in the face. We want all the privileges, but none of the duties. Before we know it, we’re middle aged and a brand new set of catastrophes commence. We look back on those bygone salad days and wonder how we wandered so far from our original path.
The sad fact is, however, that as we age, we do become nothing more than mutant mirror images of our preformed selves. Even with the skills and secrets we’ve learned, all the disillusionment and disaster that has shaped or sullied us, we never really escape that initial little boy/girl lost. In 1964, a British TV company captured this sentiment with a singularly brilliant idea. They would film a group of children from contradicting economic and social backgrounds as part of an expose on the UK class system. From that starting point, they hoped to speculate on the state of the nation come the year 2000 and how we develop as people and personalities.
The result was Seven Up, an eye-opening exploration of heredity vs. environment. As a byproduct of that one-off TV special, the most significant documentary film series in the history of the genre was set into motion. Followed by Seven Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, and now 49 Up, The Up Series (as all the films are referred to) stand as a terrific, tantalizing time capsule of personal growth and human development. Available again on DVD from First Run Features, it is epic filmmaking at its most interpersonal. It’s also a clear indictment of the obtuse notions of predetermination and birthright. Certainly, it suggests that we are born into who we will eventually become. But because we get the rare opportunity to follow a group of people through 42 years of existence we experience the layers that tend to add their own indelible stamp on our physical and mental makeup.
In the beginning, there were 14 children being filmed. Symon and Paul, a couple of misplaced mischief-makers, were found living in a London children’s home. Tony was a rough and tumble East End kid, a scrappy youth moving face first through the world. Nicholas was a farm boy in the Yorkshire Dales, the only child his age in the entire village. Bruce wanted to be a missionary, if only to be closer to his father, living in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). John, Andrew, and Charles, three prim prep school boys, offered their parentally approved statements about class and culture, while on the other end of the economic spectrum, Jackie, Lynn, and Susan hinted that financial or social circumstances did little to secure happiness. Suzy shared the rich children’s views about luxury and privilege, while Liverpool lads Neil and Peter illustrated the famous cheek of the then popular ‘Fab Four’.
Comprising seven of the best documentaries ever crafted for the small (and later, big) screen, The Up Series is a monumental achievement in cinema and DVD. It is hard to describe in plain and simple terms the impact and the power that these films really have. From their time in a bottle barometers of popular styles and changing social philosophies to the remarkable insight one gains in how people develop and adapt, each and every installment in this landmark undertaking deserves praise and reward. Though it’s hard to imagine how the chronicle of a dozen or more kids from childhood to adulthood could resonate with such colossal themes and universal platitudes, The Up Series is indeed such an exalted exhibition. But it is also much more. It is riveting human theater, the drama of lives fulfilled and dreams dashed, played out over the ambitious possibility of time and space.
Anyone wondering if adult expectations and peer pressure really affects a child need look no further than a dreamy, effervescent Liverpuddlian named Neil, arguably one of the “stars” of the series. Without giving too much away, there are numerous hints of discontent in the young boy’s home. By 21, he is a squatter (the British version of licensed homelessness) and when we meet him again, the results are even more tragic. Each time he is questioned, the issue of parents comes up, and you can see a wounded, wasted change to his demeanor. They say you can tell a great deal about a person just by looking at their face. Nowhere is this truer than in The Up Series.
Seven Up, the first film, is like any introduction, brief and to the point. We get the iconic images of our 14 subjects, from the goofy gaiety of that little balled up bruiser Tony, to the over polished reserve of the boarding school boys (John, Andrew, and Charles all act exactly like we imagine miniature versions of their school tie wearing fathers would). The aforementioned Neil and his friend Peter (who drops out of the psychodrama after 28 Up) are like a classic comedy duo, finishing each others thoughts and riffing relentlessly on their tiny, insular childhood world. The three girls, Jackie, Lynn, and Susan, create an equal triptych of recognizable dimensions, one that will be repeated often throughout the remaining six films.
From Seven Up
Perhaps the most startling sequences feature the young, Wellington boot wearing Nicholas. Speaking in a thick Yorkshire brogue and belying his one room schoolhouse education, his child of the land leanings undergo perhaps the most amazing total transformations in all of The Up Series. But all is not light and charming. There is sadness in Seven Up, especially when the focus turns to the social orphans Symon and Paul. Living in a boy’s home because their parents could not keep them, economically, legally or culturally, these tough little tykes come across as both strapping and beaten down. Especially Paul, who is so soft spoken and scared that his timid deportment can’t match his working class compactness. You expect a far harder child, a boy of the streets, not of sentiment.
Of all the films here, Seven Plus Seven is the most painful to watch, not for what it reveals so much as what is says about the universal truth of growing up. As an age, 14 is just HORRIBLE for everyone in the film. Tony is a distracted, depressed apprentice jockey. You can almost read the defeat in his eyes. Neil is already coming unglued, starting to buckle under the untold pressures that would lead to future issues. Symon is sullen, having moved back with his mum and feeling the strain of a life in near poverty. And Suzy can barely look at the camera; she’s avoiding it like she does every other aspect of her slowly decaying life (her parents were in the middle of a divorce at the time).
As for the rest, the incredibly awkward sense of vulnerability and vilification is written all over their shoe-gazing faces. John, Andrew and Charles, who have some embarrassing physical concerns (they haven’t quite grown into their lips, face, and neck, respectively) at least address the camera with some manner of reasonable respect. And Jackie, Lynn, and Susan are attentive and alert to the person (director Michael Apted) addressing them. But for every full-faced Bruce, who still seems perfectly happy with his erudite life (something that seems to stifle him for the next 26 years) there is a nervous, near incoherent Nicholas, babbling on aimlessly in an obvious dodge to avoid the questions.
As a result of all the restlessness, 21 Up feels like a reprieve, a commuting of the death sentence many of these kids felt before. Indeed, it’s at this point where the group begins to break off, with some subjects falling back into the woodwork, while others indirectly step to the fore. Many will argue that, over the course of The Up Series, it’s really all a battle between Tony and Neil for preeminence and drama and 21 Up is an obvious example of this concept. Though others will make a strong statement here (two of our three lasses are married women by now and Suzy, the single socialite, is a chain-smoking basket case) it is the East Ender and the Liverpool lad that describe the tense dichotomy of what is going on in these documentaries.
From the beginning of the series, Tony speaks of his single dream in his life, to be a jockey. He got the chance at 14, but never made it to the big leagues. But this bright, energetic go-getter already has the next stage in his personal path mapped out. He wants to be a cabbie, and while making a little book on the side, he studies “The Knowledge”, the grueling course for London taxi drivers. Tony lives in the realm of infinite possibilities, poised to take on life when it tosses him trouble. Neil, on the other hand, is everything that Tony is not. He is defeated and dejected. His living situation could be best described as dire. And he’s lost in a world of his own injured thoughts. 21 Up wants to tell us that the age of majority is also the age of determination. How you approach this tentative step into adulthood will cloud and color your entire future.
Then the series and its thesis start to dissolve. By 28 Up, a few of our subjects have dropped out (John and Charles do not take part) and Paul’s move to Australia (before Seven Plus Seven) seems to have benefited this insecure man. Divorce is barely mentioned and children are starting to arrive. Suzy becomes a star here now, going from Goth kid in training to reasonably well-adjusted wife and mother (and this after a disturbing conversation in 21 Up where she hinted that she’d never settle down). By the time we reach 35, several things are becoming painfully clear. Neil is not getting any better, and has really only managed to find another anti-social alcove to crawl into. Tony has pushed his East Ender dream as far as he can and you can sense the wandering eye and impulsive streak that will obscure his existence by 42 (where we get to hear the sullen results). Our trio of chain store girls has grown even more distant and distinct, with only Lynn finding a way to maintain her fragile 15-plus year marriage.
Even Symon eventually drops out, apparently embarrassed over his failed first marriage (in which he left behind five kids, something he said he’d never do). 28 Up and 35 Up are, perhaps, the most internally agonizing to experience, because of the time we’ve devoted to these people, their personalities and their problems. We want them to succeed and be stable. We long for their happiness and the heart leaps a little when we see Suzy smiling or Andrew opting out of the class struggle. But by 42 Up, every sequence is an endless endurance test. Apted (who helmed all but the first film) uses clips and comments to set up the subjects, and as we watch them age and augment, we hope that the final vision is bright and hopeful. Sadly, this is not always the case.
Throughout the later installments of the series, an interesting debate develops. John, the advantaged child who became a successful barrister (and refused to participate in 28 Up and 42 Up) believes that these films fail to offer any actual context. He only made an appearance in 35 Up to promote some important charity work he is engaged in. Frankly, he has a point. Real issues are barely discussed here such as Neil’s problems, Tony’s deep affection for his family, the fact that some of these people have actual brothers and sisters. John’s argument is that these are just sketches of life, carefully filtered images of good and bad, victory or collapse without any of the background to provide reasons or rationales.
If The Up Series has a flaw, this would be it. This is not investigative journalism. These documentaries have no desire to dig beneath the surface. What these individuals bring to the microphone, both positive and negative, is completely within the documentary’s control (a couple of husbands hint that the reason their wives no longer appear on camera is because of this lack of power). In reality, we really don’t get to know these people beyond how the camera ‘creates’ them. Their actual lives are as mysterious to us as when we first hear them speak.
And then everything changes once again. Seven years pass and 49 Up announces the end of middle age and the further advancement of mortality. Yet no one is nervous except maybe Jackie, who thinks director Apted is purposely making her look bad. It’s a sentiment shared by Suzie. She talks about having old wounds opened every time the director’s unwelcome phone call arrives, and even though she’s been a fascinating part of the experiment for nearly half a century, we sense a resolve to quit. Everyone else, however, seems so solid and contented that it’s almost maddening. We want rage and upheaval, not quiet suburban ease and relative satisfaction. And yet it’s there, a kind of matured happiness plastered on everyone’s aging mug.
Tony has taken refuge in Spain; his suggested dislike of the East Ends new “minority” status is one of the series’ rare political stances. Lynn feels the same way, yet blames the government for deciding to further disenfranchise the area by cutting school programs. John and Andrew still play professionals, while Symon seems finally settled. Even Neil is given over to an optimism that resonates as slightly surreal. Is could be his newfound religious fervor, but 49 Up contemplates something more inclusive. Time has eroded away most of the participant’s fears and flails. They are finally satisfied with who they’ve become.
As for the presentation on DVD, First Run Features obviously believes that the movies speak for themselves. They limit added content on the first five features to a photo gallery and a brief biography of primary documentarian Michael Apted. By 42 Up, we get a scene specific commentary from said director. Instead of speaking straight through for over two hours, he divides his narrative up into several sections. He offers up secrets and the insider specifics involved in the making of each film as well as describing the effect it has had on him, personally.
It’s a similar situation with the most recent addition, 49 Up. Apted is back, dishing more dirt on the participants and insinuating that the next few years will be crucial for the series’ survival. It’s an opinion he mimics to Roger Ebert in an interview as part of the package. He fears that death, either his or of one of the subjects, could undermine the series going forward.
Even if it never sees another installment, The Up Series has definitely left its mark. Interestingly enough, it is the images that we will remember. Beyond all the words and witticisms, we see the same shots over and over: Tony falling as he runs to school; Neil skipping along the streets of his preplanned neighborhood; Suzy doing an awkward ballet move as part of a dance class. Symbolically, these images are so ripe with foreboding that we don’t want to recognize it at first. When he trips, Tony takes a moment, laying flat on his face, before deciding to get up and press on. Neil is oblivious to the world around him, lost in a singular daydream of his own devising. As he moves away from us, we sense the beginning of that long trip into the land of the lost. Suzy’s struggle is of a far more psychological one. Something is challenging her nonchalant calmness and it’s paralyzing her.
From Symon and Paul, who don’t think they deserve much better in life, even as middle-aged men (they bear the scares of the boy’s home even 42 years later) to the solid, secure Andrew, whose moved from one pampered life into another world of distaff dispensation, the clear point here is that those formative years, from cognizance to around the age when the filmmakers found them, do indeed formulate and fashion what people become as adults. We can see it in their friendly, flummoxed faces. We can read it in their needy, curious eyes. We can hear it in their arch or arcane voices. And we can keep it in snapshots. The Up Series is a masterpiece and as with all great art, it rests solidly in the visual…and the passage of time.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-up-series/