In the eighth installment of Michael Apted’s epochal documentary series, his aging participants (one of cinema’s greatest assemblage of living characters) provide not just a telescope into the past but also a kind of primer for how to live, even as the specter of mortality starts to cast its shadow.
This was a film series that should have been nothing but a gimmick. 1964’s 7 Up was a short and none-too-serious look at a gaggle of 14 English schoolchildren from a variety of backgrounds. The narrator made a lark of it, intoning about the children’s styles of play and pointing them out after the other (“there’s Nicholas…and Tim”) as though he were identifying different species of animal in some amusing wildlife short. What ideology existed in the short seemed to come from the filmmakers’ reflexive expectation that the rich kids would be assured of powerful places in society, while the poorer kids would have a harder time of it. The three prep-school boys reciting in plummy tones the list of exclusive institutions they were sure to attend were set in direct contrast to the orphanage boy asking a simple question: “What is a university?” There were hints of something deeper here, particularly its version of the old Jesuit maxim: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” But it didn’t seem to be anything made for longevity.
Eight films on, director Michael Apted (who worked as a researcher on the first film) has created something for the ages. The Up series is like a living, breathing cinematic experiment. (More than a few of the people appear to feel they are being watched under a microscope, and resent it.) But after each seven-year delay, when Apted and his crew returns to interview those of the original 14 still talking to them, the drama of it increases in small increments almost scientific in tone. We see person turn not just from children into adults, but from characters into people. By the time that the current installment, 56 Up, comes around, most of those involved have left so much of themselves on the screen that the impending clouds of sickness and mortality begin to carry an almost unbearable weight.
Like its predecessors, 56 Up is less a standalone piece than a layering on of new material. For each participant, the editors splice together a quick clip-show of bits from the previous films before revealing that person in their 56th year. Then, as the interview goes, the film cuts back for thematically relevant bits from other years, proving that one of the worst things a person could have done to them is capturing the ill-considered things said in one’s youth on film for all eternity. (Indeed, more than a few participants refer to the seven-year filming sessions as a kind of voluntary torture which they don’t understand their own willing acquiescence in.)
There are a couple points of initial interest in each segment for followers of the series. First, what does everyone look like; have the hideous bulky sweaters of the 1980s finally been done away with? Second, there’s curiosity about what everybody is doing. Is Tony, the blunt-spoken Eastender, still a cabbie? Are John and Andrew, two of the prep-school boys, still the lawyers they thought they’d be? Is Neil, the compulsively unhappy wanderer, still pushing forward with his shocking entry into politics revealed in 49 Up? What’s going on with Nick, the farm kid who became a university professor in America? How is Lynn, the children’s librarian who discovered a mysterious brain ailment some years back?
In that way, 56 Up is a means of checking in on these people who have grown up on camera. Whatever its early socioeconomic purpose, the films have operated as a canvas of characters ranging from the spunky and talkative to reserved and ironic to the just plain British stoic. Of course, having followed them for so long, the films shows with occasionally stunning vividness how many personalities the average person can go through. Some seem to change nothing but their height over the decades. John, for instance, carries the same easy aristocratic mien now as he did in 7 Up (though in 56 Up he is at pains to point out that he was not nearly as wealthy as watchers of the earlier films had assumed). But seeing Symon go from the laid-back Peter Pan of the early films to the balding and dutiful father is an incredible transformation. One would barely recognize the painfully shy and bespectacled Nick of 14 Up who now so easily commands with screen with self-deprecating wit and a deep lecturer’s voice.
It isn’t just the characters who’ve changed, of course; there’s also the world. Murmurs of discontent from previous years about Thatcher’s government or overpaid union workers have been replaced by a general worry. Tony’s vacation home in the south of Spain was last seen surrounded by new construction; it is now buffered with “For Sale” signs. Jackie, still living in Scotland near her ex, is hit on multiple fronts, with a close family member suffering from cancer and the unwelcome news that even with her rheumatoid arthritis, cutbacks will force her to get a job. (Nearing the end of something, she says in a cracked voice, “If David Cameron can find me a job, I’ll do it.”) The welfare safety net that kept the people in the films over the years from falling completely through the cracks in their worst times looks to be fraying now, and nervousness is in the air.
Even with that concern and the expectation that mortality will of necessity begin to rear its head, though, 56 Up carries a sense of spaciousness and wisdom never much present in the series before. It’s as though at 56 years, most of these people have come to an agreement with who they are meant to be. The idealistic Bruce, who opined in the first film about going to Africa as a missionary, before settling into teaching math at a poor school. In 49 Up, it was shown that he moved to the posher environs of St. Alban’s. Now, he’s shown playing cricket and camping with his kids, having no patience for talking about whether he’s living up to earlier ideals. He just wants to get on with life and be happy with his family in whatever time he has left. Like nearly everybody else on screen, Bruce speaks as somebody who, if he’s not where he wants to be, is at least content with the decisions that have led him to that place. Unlike the previous films, 56 Up isn’t just another link in a long chain of story and circumstance, but a capstone of sorts. There will be more films, and eagerly anticipated, but after this one, there wouldn’t have to be any.
The next time anybody sends a satellite into space with examples of human society for any inquisitive aliens that the craft happens to come across, Apted’s Up series is one of the best pieces of culture that could be included. It isn’t just about life, it’s about how to live.