Director: Michael Apted
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.
In 1963, the British TV series “World in Action” aired “Seven Up,” a program that brought together a group of 7 year olds from varied socioeconomic backgrounds and interviewed them about how they saw their future careers and family lives. The idea was to give viewers a glimpse of what the population of England in the year 2000 might look like while giving an airing to the controversy surrounding the lack of mobility in England’s rigid class structure. What followed this somewhat inconsidered idea of dubious value has become a landmark in film documentary—a series of seven films so far that has followed the lives of most of these children at regular seven-year intervals.
I’ve followed the Up series, which has played on the arthouse circuit for years, since I became aware of it; 28 Up was the first one I saw. If you never saw any of the previous films, however, you’d still be pretty well caught up on the interview subjects. Michael Apted, who directed every episode but the first, uses clips from the previous films and provides voiceover summaries to bring viewers up to speed. My husband, who never saw a single Up film until yesterday, was fully acquainted with the project by the end of 49 Up, the newest in the series.
Fourteen subjects have participated in the series at one time or another. Charles and Peter dropped out fairly early, and John went on a hiatus for 42 Up, but is back for the new film. Participating in all seven are Bruce, Jackie, Symon, Andrew, Sue, Nick, Neil, Lynn, Paul, Suzy, and Tony. Apted doesn’t use their last names, and with divorces and remarriages overtaking a number of the subjects, it seems like a good way to go for this review, too.
Our upper-class kids, John and Andrew, went to the prestigious prep schools and universities they said they would when they were seven, and then became successful lawyers with proper wives and families and all the trappings of success. Andrew would have liked to have spent more time with his kids instead of at the office, natch. John married an ambassador’s daughter and does charitable work connected with his aristocratic family’s roots in Bulgaria.
Tony, from working-class East London, wanted to be a jockey at age seven. He did become a jockey but wasn’t good enough to keep at it. He became a cab driver, married in his twenties, had a family, had affairs that nearly broke up his marriage, got through it, and is now living in what amounts to a English colony in Spain for the solidly middle class. The East London girls Jackie, Lynn, and Sue all said they had a million options when they were 21, admitted that they had few options when they were 28, and have either stayed married or divorced and remarried once or twice. All have kids. Symon, the only black in the sample, got married, had five kids, divorced, got happily remarried, had another kid, works at a warehouse, and takes in foster kids.
The most compelling member of the sample, Neil, started displaying evidence of mental illness at 21 and was homeless by 28. He eventually ended up in the remote Shetland Islands of Scotland. He pulled himself together, though, and got into politics at the city council level in London. Now, still single and still battling problems being around people, he moved back to Scotland, is running for office again as a liberal in a conservative rural district, and is active in the Anglican church. I can tell you that I and other Up followers were relieved to find out in 42 Up that he was still alive, and I’m delighted that he’s still hanging in there.
To be honest, after seven years, I needed a refresher on who these people were, and even after seeing the film, I couldn’t remember most of the names or associate them with their stories. And that, I think, is the problem I’m finally starting to acknowledge with the Up series. While it has been universally hailed, with Roger Ebert naming it one of the 10 best films (taken together) of all time, there just isn’t anything deeply memorable about it. Almost all of the participants claim that the cyclic intrusion into their lives is painful, an invasion of privacy that forces them to relive old hurts. Suzy, a girl from wealth who went from a cynical chain smoker at 21 to a happily married woman, says she imagines people are interested in her and the others for a few minutes and then they’re on to other things. Even the rather amazing odyssey of idealist Bruce, who taught math in Bangladesh and inner-city London, has resolved in a boringly happy marriage and teaching position at the posh St. Albans school. He plays cricket, is an older parent to two young children, and gets ribbed for going “yuppie.”
Andrew and John have wondered whether this chronicle will prove anything at various times during the series. I have to ask the same thing. As a contemporary of the Up participants, I’ve seen myself and my friends go through much the same changes. What makes these lives uniquely interesting enough to intrude upon every seven years? Does this utterly unscientific, statistically insignificant sample tell us anything about class, age, divorce, or any other subject dealt with in the films? Does their chronicle amount to one of the ten best films of all time? I say, no way.
Apted hasn’t proven anything about the human condition other than sometimes we make plans and they happen, and sometimes they don’t. Wealth is an advantage for obtaining a similarly wealthy life as an adult, but most people can find a way to live comfortably, even happily. Apted seems a poor anthropologist to me, neither probing nor objective. He’s a bit of a snob, asking prying questions of people further down the food chain (Nick’s marital problems, Neil’s enforced celibacy, Jackie’s happiness or disappointment about her daughter being like her) and skimming the surface with the bluebloods. It seems he can’t forget the class question that got him started on this project. Too bad. If he’d dug a little deeper, he might have had something really different. Despite the inherent fascination of eavesdropping on real people’s lives—hence the explosion of “reality” TV—and perhaps the relatively good news for younger viewers that by 50, people seem to finally “get” their lives (balanced by the equally depressing news that they will probably double in size), the Up experience is pretty much like Bruce’s description of his relationship with Neil, who roomed with him for two years in London. They keep in touch by letter once in a while, and Bruce wonders what he’s up to and hopes he’s doing ok. Me, too, guys. See you in another seven years, I guess.