In 1964, Michael Apted, a 22-year-old law student recently graduated from Cambridge, was recruited by Granada TV to seek out 14 seven-year-old children for a documentary about the class system in British society and how it predetermined lives. The show’s guiding principle was the Jesuit maxim “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”
That documentary, “Seven Up” – in which children were selected from the working and upper classes, with fewer girls than boys and the middle class essentially unrepresented – was intended as a one-shot experiment. But Apted ended up carrying the project forward at seven-year intervals, revisiting the original group each time. (One boy, ironically enough a documentary filmmaker, dropped out early on, and a few others fell out and then back in again.) What began as a kind of political tract soon enough morphed into something far more resonant: a long-form epic about the changes that life brings.
“56 Up” is the latest installment in this ongoing odyssey, which by now has taken on a life of its own. Ever since “28 Up,” at least, Apted has had to crowd his subsequent editions with the participants’ lengthening back stories in order to bring both initiates and uninitiates in the audience up to speed. At 56 and counting, that’s a lot of back story, and sometimes the effect is scrunched, with more screen time seemingly devoted to the participants’ pasts than to their presents.
But this is unavoidable in a project of such scope, and it also has its advantages. The effect of seeing these 7-year-olds expanding over time into 56-year-olds is almost symphonic at times, as Apted shuttles us between footage shot over those many years.
From a class-conscious standpoint, with few exceptions, that Jesuit maxim has proved true – the working-class kids and the upper-class kids have almost predestined life trajectories. But Apted has moved beyond such simplifications. The “Up” series has its greatest value, I think, as a complex human document, not a reductively political one.
Most touching is the com-parison between the scruffy black-and-white interviews from 1964 and those of the present day. In some cases, the differences are stark. The almost supernally cheerful boy Neil has, over time, been hobbled by mental illness and indigence; and yet he hangs on, making useful work for himself in local council politics and church activities.
Like more than a few of the participants, he’s wary of Apted’s cinematic intrusions. Apted acts as the off-camera interviewer, and his dry, almost blasé, but always indulgent questioning sometimes provokes an aggravated response.
Perhaps the truest criticism of the series is offered up by Nick, who was educated in a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales before attending Oxford and is now an engineering professor in Madison, Wis. Complaining of the tiny slivers of a life that make it into the movie every seven years, he wonders: “Is that all there is to us?” He rejects the idea that the film truly conveys the lives of its subjects, but, in a larger sense, he says, the participants represent Everyman.
I think he’s both right and wrong. Certainly a primary appeal of the “Up” series is the way it allows us to see ourselves, whatever our station, in these people. For those of us who have been with the series from early on, a kind of parallel existence has grown up between us and them.
But what gives the series its force is not just its universality but also its particularity. These grown-ups may be Everyman, but they are also singular. If the “Up” movies are reality TV, they are its most transcendent expression. Apted doesn’t try to force his interviewees into unnatural situations. He allows their lives to play out however they do. “56 Up” may lack the life-changing dynamic that characterized some of the earlier editions, but that’s appropriate to the life cycle. The quotidian existence is presented without apology. Grade: A- (Unrated.)