When the Seven Up documentary project was launched, the open question was, “How much does class shape the lives of people in Britain?” Forty-nine years and seven more documentaries later, that question is more about the shaping effects of life under periodic international scrutiny. Director Michael Apted was a researcher on the original 1964 TV doc Seven Up, which interviewed 14 British children from a range of backgrounds. Every seven years since, he’s checked in all of the interviewees who chose to stay in the public eye, and the results to date—7 Plus Seven, 21, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up, and now 56 Up—form the most ambitious documentary project yet filmed. Individually, the films don’t have much to offer new viewers; they’re a mishmash of archival footage and current talking-head interviews, reducing individuals to brief summaries and simple patterns. Collectively, though, they’re a fascinating exercise in voyeurism that predates the voyeurism age, and they’re a rich portrait of how individual lives progress, and how age shapes expectations and experience.
Where past series installments found various subjects in states of confusion, dissatisfaction, turmoil, and growth, the interviewees in 56 Up—the total is now back up to 13 of the original participants, barring only Charles Furneaux, who opted out after 21 Up and never returned—largely seem more settled and content than ever. Several of them express regret over artistic or political careers that never coalesced, particularly Neil Hughes, a periodically homeless, perpetually desperate-seeming district-council representative who complains that he just wants to be a writer, but that even the documentary series hasn’t sparked interest in his work. (This may come as bad news to interviewee Peter Davies, who returns to the series after skipping the last three films, and openly states that he’s doing it to draw attention to his latest band.) But most of their regrets are minor and passing, and generally, the participants are primarily focused on their children and marriages (second marriages for the majority of them), with work coming in a close second.
Apted’s stolid focus on relationships, jobs, living situations, and kids becomes repetitive over the course of 13 interviewees, and he too rarely asks larger questions. The responses to sallies like, “Are you scared of becoming old?” are guarded but philosophical and interesting, making it a shame that these inquiries don’t come more frequently. Possibly Apted doesn’t want to force too much navel-gazing into a series that already naturally drifts in that direction; he seems to be attempting a more removed, observational approach, though that’s difficult considering that he spends about two days filming his subjects every seven years, and they almost never have a chance to forget the cameras.
They can’t forget the cameras when they aren’t around, either. As usual, several of Apted’s interviewees gripe about how these films have made them into minor celebrities, prompting well-intentioned but misguided fan mail—or hate mail. And as always, they talk about their relationship to the Up films, and their ambivalence toward the periodic invasion of privacy. Part of Apted’s focus on the everyday seems to be an attempt to get at relatable, universal parallels—the similar concerns and the core values of life. Those commonalities have always been the most immersive aspect of the Up films, as people from different backgrounds, and with different goals and personalities, go through the same stages of life in the same order. And too much focus on the filming experience would take the subjects far from those commonalities, into the rarified world of reality stars.
But the piercing scrutiny probably has its own chilling effect, particularly as the rise of reality television has taught a generation the importance of self-mythologizing by staying calm, cautious, and self-aware in front of cameras. And it’s periodically worth wondering whether some of 56 Up’s expressions of contentment and lack of regret are just the subjects playing to the cameras, knowing their life choices will be scrutinized and analyzed, not just in the moment, but by generations of filmgoers to come. It’s clearly an uncomfortable life under the microscope, and some of the interviewees make it abundantly clear that they’re still making these films out of a sense of obligation rather than personal interest. However crafted their stories may have become, and however reluctantly they participate, their sacrifice will be appreciated by history, and by the next generation of voyeurs as well.