'56 Up': This Series is Performative, Reality TV Before the Concept Emerged

In the eighth movie in Michael Apted's extraordinary series 56 Up, Neil talks not only about his life, per se, but also about his life as a documentary subject.

56 Up

Director: Michel Apted, Paul Almond
Cast: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Susan Sullivan, Tony Walker
Rated: NR
Studio: First Run Features
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-01-04 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-05-14 (General release)

"There are a few things I would like to say," essays Neil Hughes. And before he says them, he underlines, "I have tremendous good will toward the series." That would be the Up documentary series, initiated by director Michael Apted in 1964, when he filmed 20 seven-year-olds living in and around London. Most of those subjects, including Neil, continued to appear in the films, which were made every seven years. Now, in the eighth movie, 56 Up, Neil talks not only about his life, per se, but also about his life as a documentary subject.

"For one thing," he asserts, "I know I'm not the only participant who would like to set the record straight in a number of ways." Though Neil doesn’t go on to name other participants, or whether he knows this because he's spoken with them or has seen them interviewed, in the series or elsewhere, that is, he might know them as he imagines a viewer might know him. As happens so often throughout the Up series, this allusion to off-screen experience opens up possibilities, of meaning, effect, and intention. The films, so seemingly transparent, is also performative, reality TV before the concept emerged, personal and public lives mashed together.

Just so, the films can only be incomplete representations. This despite the idea, as Neil puts it, that "For so many millions of people, I'm sitting here wearing my heart on my sleeve. They think they know absolutely everything about me."

And then, something new and the same, at once. As Neil reveals some aspects of his life that may not have been clear before -- his devotion to writing, his work as a lay minister, his frustrations over failed romances -- he's not so much completing the portrait offered by the films as he is refining and adjusting it, perhaps setting up for a next installment, perhaps saying goodbye to viewers who have or maybe have not kept up. As he describes his life, he's framing as well as a relationship with viewers, most of whom he'll never "know" in even the remotest sense, but who might assess him or guess something about that heart on his sleeve. As such, Neil's story here becomes a subtle, extraordinary reflection on the series generally and specifically, the ways it has served an audience and also the ways it has shaped its subjects' lives.

Neil's concern over how he is known or not known speaks to questions raised by some other participants in 56 Up. They've all traveled long roads since 7 Up, of course, and some of the first subjects are no longer involved in the project. And those who speak again, now, have different ideas about its effects, on whether they're known, on how the films have encouraged self-reflection or anxiety, on how their lives have been shaped by being filmed, literally having cameras following them for a period every seven years and also appearing on British television at regular intervals.

The format does offer viewers the illusion, as Neil suggests, that they might "know" the people they see. That illusion is partly formal (for example, in each film, clips from previous films remind viewers of what they've seen or show them what've missed regarding the subjects) and partly cultural (documentary films, whose conventions include talking heads and apparently observational footage, offer "truth"). And so viewers might piece together stories about what they've experienced, via the films, anyway, imagining they understand an experience; indeed, some viewers have written encouraging letters to subjects, or identify them on streets and offer advice or support for whatever story they've seen.

The Up series offered versions of reality, constructed on camera but also full of mistakes like any life, engaged in a complex dialogue with viewers, creating, delivering to, and thwarting expectations. It has for years helped participants to reflect on their lives off screen, but also about their lives as film and TV subjects. With their lives created on as TV, the kids who became adults during Up are now able to reflect on the process from ever greater distances. If the attention they've received hasn’t always been welcome, it has shaped them. Peter Davies says in 56 Up that he decided, after 28 Up to step off, not to come back for another. And yet, he muses, here he is, still in process on screen and off, still pondering what it can mean for him to be a subject and also himself. It turns out that his celebrity has served Peter, and his wife and singing partner Gaby, helping to make their music known.

In a story that seems different, at first, Suzanne Dewey suggests that her life has proceeded separately from the films. As 56 Up begins, you see her in a clip from 35 Up, describing her marriage, at age 24, to Billy (with whom she appears playing darts in a pub). "You must miss that crucial stage of being yourself," she says, marrying so young. In 35 Up, Suzy goes on, "I just knew it wasn’t working." Looking back again in 49 Up, two films later, she's got a new beau, Glen, to whom she's been engaged for 14 years. The camera stands back from a stage in a karaoke bar, where they laugh and sing, as she says, "Things are going very well."

As all of these moments come together as 56-year-old Suzy tells you she remains happy with her job as an administrator at Queen Mary College, University of London and in her relationship as well. Her descriptions seem superficial, events-oriented, And then you see her giving a speech for her job, standing before hundreds of students, confident and poised, Suzy never went to university, Suzy's interview notes, and now she essentially runs one. She explains her poise and self-assuredness as a function of her own preparation and also her experience. She's at ease when, "I think if you know they can never ask you something you don’t know the answer to." She's describing her life, her "self," not the films. But still, even as you think you know, you know, you don't, quite.


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