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Life Happens

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Life Happens

Michael Apted’s ongoing Up series remains a profound work of art. Autumn 2020
Arts and Culture

With the advent of photography, human beings could, for the first time, gaze at precisely captured images of themselves—pictures that, long after their demise, could show their descendants what they had looked like, rendering it unnecessary to rely upon some paint-and-canvas portraitist’s perhaps-fanciful interpretation. Decades later, film fans could go to a cinema and observe, say, a venerable 78-year-old Katharine Hepburn pondering mortality in On Golden Pond (1981) and then return home, switch on the TV, and watch her play a bright-eyed, ambitious Broadway ingenue of twentysomething in Morning Glory (1933). Meantime, home movies made it possible to view oneself and one’s loved ones in action at various stages of life. All these technological advances, in some sense, have managed to erase time. To someone living in the eighteenth century or earlier, they would appear miraculous, but we’re thoroughly accustomed to them.

Even so, there has never been anything quite like the Up series.

In 1964, intending it as a one-off, Britain’s Granada Television broadcast an unassuming black-and-white documentary called Seven Up, in which 14 seven-year-old British boys and girls were interviewed at their homes or schools (as in the Peanuts cartoons, no parents were in sight) and asked about their lives, tastes, interests, and ambitions. The program’s stated objective was to provide, as the voice-over put it, “a glimpse of Britain’s future . . . a glimpse of England in the year 2000.” But there was, as the left-wing filmmakers and Granada executives later acknowledged, another, unspoken goal. Eager to get in a few digs at the British class system, they deliberately picked children from the nation’s economic extremes and strove to bring out the dramatic contrast between the posh lads and lassies, who had their glittering educational and professional futures all laid out for them and could describe their paths ahead as easily as they could sing “God Save the Queen” from memory; and the poor kids, two of whom lived in an orphanage and one of whom asked the interviewer: “What’s a university?”

Directed by Paul Almond as part of a series called World in Action, Seven Up was a ratings hit, and seven years later, when the children had turned 14, Michael Apted, who was then 30 and had been a member of Almond’s production team, carried out a new round of interviews, reporting on what had happened to the children in the intervening years. The result was 7 Plus Seven, in which Apted cut back and forth between new material, in color, and black-and-white footage from Seven Up. This broadcast, too, scored well in the ratings; seeing those same children again, now in their early teens, was absorbing and, it’s fair to say, unprecedented. Motivated by the programs’ popularity as well as by his own curiosity, Apted continued to return to his subjects—to hunt them down, in many cases, with considerable difficulty—at seven-year intervals, each time producing a freshly minted documentary that intercut old and new clips, seeking to give a sense of each person’s development.

Naturally, with every installment, the documentaries have tended to increase in length, as Apted confronted the task of having longer lives to sum up: Seven Up ran 39 minutes; 7 Plus Seven clocked in at eight minutes short of an hour; with 21 Up, the running time jumped to an hour and 40 minutes. The longest so far has been 49 Up, which went on for a full three hours. The most recent installments have been broadcast on British TV over a period of two or three nights, as well as screened at film festivals around the world. In 2019, the time rolled around again for yet another program, the 143-minute-long 63 Up, which, after airing on ITV in June, was screened in August at the Telluride Film Festival and in October at the New York Film Festival and is now, like the series’ earlier episodes, available on DVD.

And so here they are yet again. First Tony, a funny, perky little East End rascal who became a London cabbie. Good-natured and straight-talking (“I’ve always been a cheeky chappy,” he says in 63 Up), Tony went on, like almost all the participants, to marry and have kids—and, uniquely, to admit in 42 Up, on camera with his wife in their Essex kitchen, to having cheated on her. Today, still driving a cab, and living in a lovely exurban community where he plays golf and jogs in the woods, he seems more content—and his marriage seems happier—than ever.

In Seven Up, three boarding-school boys were interviewed together. One, Charles, quit the series for good after 21 Up, became a documentary filmmaker, and is the only Up subject with a Wikipedia page (full name: Charles Furneaux). Andrew, who knew at seven that he’d go to Charterhouse and Cambridge, became a London solicitor; in 63 Up, he tends to the spectacular garden at his country house. At seven, John came off as a pint-size snob; in 7 Plus Seven, he confessed to seeking “fame and power”; after graduating from Oxford, he became a barrister. Aware of the obnoxious impression he’d made on viewers, he quit the series after 21 Up, only to return 35 years later for 56 Up, in which we learned that, far from having been an aristocrat, he was a scholarship boy from a struggling family; his reason for returning to the series was to promote his charity work for Bulgaria, his ancestral homeland. At 56, he was more appealing than one had imagined possible. There was a serious lesson here—one of many that this series has bestowed on loyal viewers.

As a sort of pendant to Almond’s trio of privileged boys, Seven Up also included a joint interview with three working-class London girls. Apted admits that, despite the producers’ “progressive” motives, the original group of 14 kids included only four girls, because everyone took it for granted that they would become housewives and were thus less important than the boys to a program seeking to discern Britain’s future. In fact, all three working-class girls went on to pursue meaningful professions. Sue, though she never went to university, worked her way up from a travel-agency job to become a top law-school administrator; Lynn worked as a librarian. Then there’s Jackie, who had worked in a bank before running a pub with her then-husband. At 63, she complains to Apted that he always asked the females almost exclusively about men and family, while querying the males about careers, politics, and social issues. “You didn’t have any idea about the changing roles of women in the U.K.,” she charges. The series’ fourth female—and the only upper-class one—is Suzy, who at 21 was an irritable, neurotic mess but who, seven years later, married and was transformed into the serene chatelaine of a stately manse.

Two participants have been teachers. Nick, a Yorkshire lad who at seven said he’d “like to know about the moon and all that,” studied physics at Oxford, and then taught at the University of Wisconsin. He’s still there. At seven, Bruce wanted to visit distant lands and teach the inhabitants to “be . . . good.” After studying math at Oxford, he taught in the inner city and, later, in Bangladesh. But when he finally married and became a father, he reevaluated his priorities and took a well-paying private school job—leading old friends to sneer that he was now a (gasp!) Tory.

As for the orphans, Paul moved to Australia and did construction work; Symon, the series’ only black person, found work in the freezer room of a sausage factory. Though he at first came off as a one-dimensional working stiff, later, plainly motivated at least in part by his own lack of a father figure as a boy, he proved a veritable saint by serving as a foster parent to more than 130 children. Peter, from Liverpool, who skipped several installments because his harsh criticism of Margaret Thatcher in 28 Up enraged many viewers, has appeared in 56 Up and 63 Up to promote his rock band. Finally, there’s Neil, a would-be writer who grew into a troubled misfit and loner—a London squatter at 21, homeless in rainy rural Scotland at 28. It was surprising to discover in 42 Up that he had become active in local politics, in 56 Up that he was a lay minister, and in 63 Up that he had married—and, not so surprisingly, separated. Thanks to an inheritance, the onetime rootless wanderer now has two residences: one in England; and the other, a charming country cottage in France.

Neil’s difficulties have always made him an object of viewer sympathy, but all the subjects have had setbacks. Tony dreamed of being a jockey, but after one unsuccessful race in his teens (“the proudest day of my life”), he decided that he’d aimed too high; in his forties, he wanted to start a sports bar in Spain, but that plan, too, fell apart. Now he has deep-vein thrombosis. Andrew regrets neglecting his family on his way up: “When you’re young and trying to make your career, it all seems terribly important.” John recently suffered a brain hemorrhage and faces retirement. Jackie lost the love of her life in a car crash and, living with rheumatoid arthritis, has been on disability for years. In 42 Up, Nick admitted, good-humoredly, that while his ambition had been “to be more famous for doing science” than for being in the Up series, “unfortunately, Michael, it’s not going to happen.” In 63 Up, he tells Apted, with heartrending poise, that he is now “seriously ill” with cancer, diagnosed only a few days before, and that, as he delicately puts it, he is “not focused on the long-term future.” In 63 Up, we learn that Lynn—the devoted librarian who loved introducing children to the joys of reading—had died five years earlier, the first of the participants to die.

What, aside from illness, retirement, and death, do the subjects talk about in 63 Up? They ponder the advent of social media; they cheer the decline of British bigotry; they mourn the growing shabbiness of London, the decay of the National Health Service, the reduction in employment opportunities for the young, and the decreasing availability of public housing. They comment on Trump and Brexit: Tony, a lifelong Tory and a “leave” voter, is so angry at the Conservatives for fumbling the U.K.’s break from the EU that he says he’ll never support them again. (This installment was produced before the triumph of Boris Johnson.)

They also talk about the class system, which, of course, was at the heart of the original Seven Up concept. At 63, most agree that their class backgrounds have played a key role in their lives. “At the end of the day,” Tony says bluntly, “it’s always them and us.” Andrew feels that the class system is now less about family background than about wealth and fame. Reflecting ruefully on the social inequalities and prejudices that characterized the Britain of his youth, John tells Apted, “I’m much more down to earth as a person than I might have ended up when I was seven.” (That’s for sure.) Sue, despite her fancy law-school position, still considers herself working-class: “You are what you’re born into. You’ll never be upper-class . . . but you can move in those circles.” Nick, whose enjoyment of life in the U.S. seems founded largely on its lack of a British-style class system, complains that “people from the ‘right’ public schools continue to run” Britain, though they’re “not necessarily the ones who are most fit” to do so. Yet class has been far from all-determining in these lives: Sue’s success, after all, defied class expectations, as did Neil’s decades on the dole.

Jackie, Lynn, and Susan in "Seven Up" (1964), Granada TV’s initial installment of the documentary (GRANADA TELEVISION/PHOTOFEST)

Indeed, one major accomplishment of this series is that it puts class in its place—makes it seem almost beside the point. For what has become increasingly palpable over the years is that Apted is capturing something essential, momentous, and mysterious about human life itself. Without realizing it, Apted (who has also directed such feature films as Coal Miner’s Daughter) attached himself in his youth to a project that would lead him, through his own life, down a path that he could never have imagined, which no one had trodden before. By choosing to persist in filming the Up series after his tykes had turned 21, moreover, Apted was taking a chance. Children are cute, adolescents glow with youth, and 21-year-olds stand on the threshold of life, their prospects still open. Watching these kids sprout into grown-ups was captivating. Yet would it be anywhere near as interesting to follow them through the slog of adulthood?

In fact, it proved even better. As the series progressed, it reminded us that adults, as they move through the years—forming relationships, pursuing careers, and dealing with personal, professional, physical, psychological, and spiritual challenges—are more complicated and therefore more fascinating than kids. To see these people get older, lose hair, acquire wrinkles, and develop ailments is also to see them become richer human beings. Aside from the fact that the Seven Up participants were originally chosen to represent the far ends of the British class spectrum, they were selected essentially at random. Is it just a coincidence, then, that every one of them, as viewed through Apted’s lens, seems, in the end—if, indeed, 63 Up is the end, and Apted, now 78, is not sure—to be a truly beautiful soul? Or would most of us, when regarded sub specie aeternitatis, come off this sympathetically? Can it really be possible that—as Anne Frank wrote, with what has always seemed to me pathetic naïveté, not long before the Gestapo broke in and hauled her off to Auschwitz—most people are basically good?

Nor do Apted’s subjects seem merely good. At 63, regardless of class background, education, or experience, each gives the impression of having grown in wisdom. Their lives, at least as Apted has captured them, are suffused with dignity and grace—touched by something so strange and sublime that one feels compelled to make reference to the divine.

Has any other film or TV miniseries ever exerted a similar effect? Some commentators point to Richard Linklater’s 2014 film Boyhood, a scripted drama shot over a 12-year period, in which he followed his protagonist, played throughout by the same actor, from age six to 18. It was a fine achievement—but nowhere near comparable in significance to the Up series. What about the sweeping, monumental works of classic fiction, such as Remembrance of Things Past, Buddenbrooks, and War and Peace? There’s no denying these novels’ titanic greatness, but it’s a matter of apples and oranges. The Up series is real—these are real people. Repeatedly revisiting them over the course of their lives is a different experience from reading Proust, Mann, and Tolstoy.

Many observers have described the early episodes of the Up series as forerunners of today’s reality TV. Yet why is almost all of reality TV so trashy and superficial, while the Up series is profound? The late film critic Roger Ebert once called the series “the noblest project in cinema history” and put 28 Up, at the time the most recent installment, on his list of the ten greatest films of all time, alongside Citizen Kane, Casablanca, La Dolce Vita, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The miracle of the film,” wrote Ebert, “is that it shows us that the seeds of the man are indeed in the child. In a sense, the destinies of these people can be guessed in their eyes, the first time we see them. . . . The secret and mystery of human personality is there from the first.”

In fact, one of the premises of Seven Up was that to see a child at seven is to glimpse the adult he will become. At its end, the narrator intoned: “Give me the child at seven, and I will give you the man.” At 63, most of Apted’s subjects agree that when they look back at themselves onscreen in the bloom of youth, they are essentially the same people they were then. Bruce says that, like his boyhood self, he still has trouble expressing his feelings: “I’ve had a sort of restricted emotional state.” Paul and Symon, the orphanage boys—who now spend vacations visiting each other in Australia and Britain—recognize that they’ve always lacked self-confidence and that this is one reason for their enduring bond. “I’m still the same little kid . . . probably all of us are,” says Nick of his seven-year-old self. “I think I can relate to that little guy. He’s so eager and earnest.” Jackie admits that she’s always been “talkative and a bit of a pain in the butt. . . . I’ve never really changed.” Sue concurs that one is born with specific attributes, “but then life happens, and every experience will change you.”

As teenagers and young adults, Apted’s subjects tended to sneer at the very idea of the program, calling it a waste of time, an intrusion into their privacy. They’ve since changed their tune. Tony has gotten a kick out of his participation; he tells Apted with delight about the time he had astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the back of his cab and somebody asked for an autograph—not Aldrin’s, but Tony’s. Asked if the Up documentaries have any value, Sue replies movingly: “Well, they certainly have a value to me.” Strangers are always stopping her on the street to talk. Why? Simple: “The things we go through are the things everyone goes through.” Nick offered his verdict in 42 Up: “I think this film is extremely important.” Though it is “an incredibly hard thing to be in . . . emotionally draining and wrenching,” he said, the series gives “a picture of everyone. A picture of a person, any person, how they change.” At 63, he adds that being involved in the series has “sort of made me think of things more intensely than I probably would have otherwise.” Jackie, the one who accuses Apted of taking a narrow view of women, nonetheless admits in 63 Up that she “loves” having been in his series.

Does it strongly affect my own view of the Up series that I’m the same age as Apted’s subjects and that I have been following these programs for decades? Though I’m American and they’re British, we’ve lived through the same historical events and cultural changes. Each of these people reminds me of someone I know. Two of them—Bruce and Neil—seem to mirror aspects of myself, though there are moments when I identify with all the characters.

True, I can recognize certain of this series’ failings and omissions. A few installments ago, Apted included Tony’s criticism of the way in which Muslims have turned London’s East End into a no-go zone. None of that sequence appears in 63 Up, and otherwise the series has almost entirely avoided the subject of immigration’s impact on many British cities. 63 Up never acknowledges that the series’ cast of uniformly non-Muslim and non-Hindu participants no longer remotely reflects the demographics of Britain. One is also aware, as ever, that the series lacks representatives of the broad middle of the U.K. population.

But these are quibbles. None comes close to mitigating the power of the Up series—the ultimate message of which is that while we all take radically different roads, each trip is compelling in its own way, and whichever route we take, the destination remains the same.

Top Photo: Neil in 49 Up (2005) (FIRST RUN FEATURES RELEASE/PHOTOFEST)

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