“Class is still the spine of the film, but it’s not the power of the film.”
— Michael Apted in the director’s commentary for the DVD of 42 Up’s
Michael Apted’s Up documentaries are, if not the best reviewed, then some of the least-criticized films ever made. Every seven years sees a new Up installment and a chorus of grateful praise from fans and critics.
Starting with Seven Up! in 1964, the series has followed a group of socioeconomically diverse Britons from the age of seven to the age of 49. The subjects of the documentaries, some of whom had their early-flowering fascism captured for posterity, are the exception to the praiseful choir. Everyone else treats the series as cinematic manna, untouched by the hand of man.
It is awe-inspiring to watch a diverse slice of Britain grow up and then grow old. At seven we see Paul, a poor boy being raised in a children’s home, speaking softly and sadly — his youthful vitality already drained out of him. At 49, Paul is married with a house in a working-class suburb of Melbourne, but he is still grim-faced and fighting depression.
On the other end of the class spectrum is John, a rather sinister seven-year-old attending an exclusive pre-preparatory school. He and two classmates, Andrew and Charles, can recite which prep schools, private high schools, and universities they are to attend. At 14, John describes his thirst for political power and his desire to outlaw workers’ strikes. At 35, he is a wealthy lawyer attempting to reclaim his family’s baronial estate in impoverished, post-communist Bulgaria. At 49, he is a bewigged counselor to the Queen.
Uncritical gratitude for the Up series is understandable; watching these diverse lives unfold does provide almost inexhaustible food for thought. When critics add a note of reservation to their praise, it is usually to comment on how the later films are slower and less lively than the earlier offerings. This is often written off as the inevitable and appropriate effect of the subjects’ advancing age. Rarely is it considered that this dulling is due to a fundamental shift in the series’ concerns and goals.
Seven Up! was first created as a one-off documentary for World in Action, a current affairs program on British television. It was conceived as a sociological investigation into how Britain’s class system is maintained. The narrator introduces the children by declaring that the “shop steward [a rank-and-file union representative] and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.” In the first three installments, the children are asked about their plans for their future, their feelings on private versus public education, which political party they favor, and their thoughts on labor unions.
The first three Ups also made robust use of the editing room in order to draw distinctions not only between the answers the children gave in their interviews, but also between their already developed class mannerisms and the rhythms of their daily lives. For instance, in Seven Up! the filmmakers depict the ways in which the children’s energies are disciplined and their playtime structured — or not — depending on their social class.
Bruce, from a wealthy background, grimaces profoundly as he and his boarding-school classmates engage in a faux-military parade overseen by a horrifying little seven-year-old drill sergeant. Neil, a middle-class boy, leaps and twirls during his public school’s designated “free movement to music” time. Tony, Susan, Jackie, and Lynn – all children from working-class families – make up games and brawl ecstatically during their unsupervised recesses. Through dynamic editing, the filmmakers provide a powerful illustration of how the upper classes seek to discipline and instill respect for authority in their own members as much as in those fated to work for them.
This critical focus on class has become less and less pronounced with every installment since 21 Up. Apted attributes this shift to a revelation he had after showing the movie in the United States. In his director’s commentary for 42 Up, Apted says that he was initially fearful that the series, with its uniquely British vocabulary of class, wouldn’t translate to an international audience. However, after he saw the positive reaction 21 Up received within the US, Apted had his American epiphany: He was not making a “political document,” as he had originally thought, but instead, a “humanistic film”. As opposed to Seven Up’s “barely disguised diatribe against the class system,” Apted says in the commentary, the series was now focused on “growing up, success, failure, promise, disappointment — everything that’s common to us all.”
As Apted “grew out of” the series’ original concern with class, the documentaries lost, as Apted himself put it, the “hard edge” of the first installments. It’s not just that there were fewer questions about politics and class. More important, there was less contrasting, comparing, and commenting — less context. With just a few exceptions, each subject’s appearance became an isolated, self-contained unit. By about 35 Up, the documentaries’ feeling of a group portrait was completely gone.
The dulling of the series’ edge has meant that if a subject is particularly sophisticated in dealing with the camera, the results can seem like a dating-service video. The same John who in 21 Up praised the class system for providing “stability and structure”, is shown playing the piano, hiking in Bulgaria, and handing out awards to children in 49 Up. We are invited to pity his supposed lack of finances as he wishes aloud that he could find the eight tons of gold his Bulgarian great-great grandfather “made off with”.
“I reckon if I shoot the horses and shoot the wife,” John says, “I may be able to retire at age 94.” The spirit of Seven Up! would dictate, after John’s attempt at populist charm, a cut to his palatial country home or at least a shot of the silk vestments he wears as Queen’s Counselor. But in 49 Up, the aspiring politician’s performance is reproduced without editorial comment.
The problem isn’t — or isn’t only — that the series shed its politics. It’s that it lost its recognition that personality is formed within particular social contexts, and that these same contexts determine the particulars of how “everything that’s common to us all” affects people. It is extraordinary that a documentary project begun as a sociological investigation could unlearn the discipline’s fundamental lessons. Getting old may be universal, but John’s experience of it will certainly be different than it will be for Paul, who, at 49, seems resigned to losing his factory job.
In an interview with journalist Jonathan Freedland, Apted acknowledged that his subjects’ lives have validated the foundational premise of the Up series: Class background has largely determined their choices in life. However, the director’s decision to shift away from sociological investigation and toward “everything that’s common to us all”, seems to have confused many viewers on this point. The conventional wisdom among film critics sees the series’ turn from class not as the product of creative decisions on the part of the filmmakers, but as emerging organically out of the subjects’ stories.
This would mean, as The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson writes, that the concerns of Seven Up! were simple pretence that had to be dropped in the face of “life”: “political ideas don’t quite survive the films’ real-time historical reach — life takes over, in all of its banality, private pleasures, employment struggles, and divorce hurts.”
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott agrees that the subjects’ lives “reveal less about the British class system than about marriage, family relations and the slow turns of the life cycle.”
Of course, it takes the conservative New York Post, via critic Kyle Smith, to draw out the political implications of this conventional wisdom: “The series began with a vaguely leftist assumption that class is destiny. But every personal arc tells a conservative parable: Individual character matters, marriage and hard work create happiness.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Apted for giving comfort to the New York Post. After all, a major limitation built into the project is the need to maintain the subjects’ cooperation. There is no contractual agreement with the participants — an unflattering portrait of John risks losing him for the next installment. It has even reached the point where Apted allows his subjects to watch the rough cut, so that they may remove any portion they find objectionable.
Whether it was because of this built-in limitation, Apted’s familial attachment to his subjects, or a simple capitulation to Hollywood narrative, the subjects’ portrayals in 49 Up — released on DVD last year — suffers from an especially false-feeling rosiness. Not only does it continue the same decontexualized “character” portraits as earlier installments, but it also manages to lose the melancholy pathos that had at least given those portraits emotional resonance. The whole thing has the tone of a clumsy, half-assed happy ending.
The project’s built-in limitations aside, it’s questionable whether Apted, who has also directed films such as The World Is Not Enough, a James Bond movie, and the Jodie Foster vehicle Nell, was ever completely interested in the series’ foundational concern — class. It’s important to remember that Apted did not originate the idea for the series — that honor belongs to Tim Hewat, the creator of World in Action. While he served as a researcher for Seven Up!, Apted didn’t take over as director until 7 Plus Seven.
In the Freedland interview, Apted said that the egalitarian “agenda” of Seven Up! has “haunted” him as a director and limited the series’ possibilities. In his director’s commentary for 42 Up, Apted spoke of “regretting” that the early focus on class was “dropped onto him”. Considering all that, perhaps Apted should not have been so surprised to wake up one Hollywood morning and find his series had “stopped being political,” as he told Freedland.
It’s impossible not to appreciate Apted’s persistence in keeping the four-decade-long experiment alive. Taken as a whole, the Up series is still rich and fascinating. However, the director’s move away from class has lessened its worth both as a socio-historical document and as a piece of art. John inadvertently spoke to this when, in 49 Up, he was asked for his opinion on the series. He responded with this speculation:
This program is compelling and interesting to viewers [because] it’s like Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here. It’s actual real life TV, with the added bonus that you can see people grow old, lose their hair, and get fat. [But] does it have any value? That’s a different question.”
John’s snide comparison to the worst of reality television couldn’t be more inaccurate in describing Seven Up!, a piece of filmmaking electric with energy and purpose. But it is depressingly close to the mark in its evaluation of what the series has become.