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The monumental Up series captures half a century of ordinary life

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With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

No one who tuned in to the special broadcast of the British current-affairs series World In Action on May 5, 1964, could have foreseen the remarkable sequence of documentaries—a monumental testament to the sadness and splendor of ordinary life—that would eventually follow. At the time, the filmmakers behind Seven Up!, as the program was called, couldn’t have either. But even the greatest undertakings often start small, and so the venerable Up series, a project that has to date encompassed eight features over nearly half a century, began with what was intended to be a one-off: 40-odd minutes of television devoted to “the struggling, changing world of the 7-year-old,” in the words of the paternal narrator.


Diverting if more than a little scattershot, Seven Up! gathered 20 children from diverse backgrounds in order to examine (and, essentially, confirm) the assumption that, even at the height of Beatlemania and “angry young manhood,” English society remained rigidly stratified. “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man,” goes the film’s mantra, a Jesuit aphorism used to underscore the extent to which these cherry-picked kids have already internalized potentially life-defining attitudes about the opportunities available to them and the others in their midst. Thus Suzy, a well-to-do girls’-school student, allows that she doesn’t know any “colored people,” and that she doesn’t want to, “thank you very much”; Tony, a rambunctious lad from London’s working-class East End, testifies to the importance of fighting “the poshies”; and a lost-looking Paul, a boarder at a charity school, answers a question about his long-term educational plans with another question: “What does ‘university’ mean?” Playing like a sociologically minded episode of Kids Say the Darndest Things, Seven Up! collected seemingly offhand remarks and convincingly presented them as rock-hard evidence of enduring class divisions.

The idea for the didactic (not to mention deterministic) Seven Up! was conceived, over pints in a pub, by two foreigners: the Canadian director Paul Almond and the Australian producer Tim Hewat, the latter of whom had created World In Action in 1963 for the left-leaning Granada Television. But it was a native son from the southeastern county of Buckinghamshire who eventually took over the series and, in due time, made it his own. Michael Apted—whose first job out of Cambridge, where he read law on scholarship, was as a researcher recruiting children to appear in Almond’s film—assumed directorial duties on 1970’s 7 Plus Seven. Even as Apted made a name for himself in Hollywood, first as a specialist in eclectic prestige fare (such as the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter) and later on as a ringmaster of action set pieces (such as The World Is Not Enough, the 1999 installment of that other beloved British franchise), he kept up with his long-running documentary experiment.


Apted is now 75—about 15 years older, if increasingly no wiser, than the people whose lives he’s peered in on every seven years—and it is his sedately needling voice, inquiring from behind the camera, that has over the years provoked so many poignant reflections, not to mention defensive retorts, from his subjects. It is those interviews, constantly juxtaposed with relevant clips from past Up episodes and often complemented by a bit of present-tense B-roll, that have come to define the straightforward aesthetic of the series. The Ups thus offer a window onto the low-key kind of lives that haven’t often made it on screen, even in the reality-hungry recent years. Watching these constantly evolving documentaries might be more akin to thumbing through a basketful of Christmas cards than it is to confronting the true messiness and flux of everyday existence. But they are nonetheless in a class by themselves as a snapshot of the way people change over time, both politically and personally.

As Apted told Stella Bruzzi, the author of an informative Up-centric monograph published by the British Film Institute, in an interview that occurred about a decade ago, “If I put things in [the participants] don’t want, or I do things they’ve asked me not to do, then they’re likely to say to me that they’re not going to do this again… There has to be much more give and take between the subjects and the filmmaker on longitudinal work.” But even as Seven Up! got its first sequel, this concern over how best to conduct such “longitudinal work” was still far from entering the picture. It was a higher-up at Granada who suggested to Apted, practically in passing, that he find out how the kids from Seven Up! were faring as teenagers, and the result was 7 Plus Seven, in which 14 of the original cast of 20—10 boys and four girls—discuss such topics as education, class privilege, and God, their answers contrasted with one another’s as well as those previously given by their 7-year-old selves.

By and large, Apted held fast to the original’s preconceived class concerns, but if 7 Plus Seven is ultimately the least satisfying entry in the series, that’s largely because many of the awkward-phase adolescents appear wary of the camera’s presence. As a result, they aren’t the least bit forthcoming. Suzy looks relieved when her interview gets interrupted by her dog, who distracts the director and his cameraman, George Jesse Turner (who would go on to shoot all the subsequent Ups), by hunting down a rabbit right behind her. Likewise, the endearingly awkward Nick—who’s stepped up from a one-room schoolhouse in the Yorkshire Dales to attend a well-regarded boarding school—fidgets and avoids all eye contact, as if this particular cross examination is almost too painful for him to bear. And the mild-mannered Symon, the only non-white participant in the film, talks in a quietly plaintive way about the impact of having been an “illegitimate” child, being raised alternatively by his single mother and in a children’s charity home. Throughout his interview, the camera looks up at him from a low angle, as if it has already anticipated his eyes drifting, abashedly, to the floor.

By the time of 21 Up (1977), the lot-in-life differences between the series’ two rhyming groups of three—the upper-crust Charles, Andrew, and John and the East End friends Jackie, Lynn, and Sue—are perhaps starker than ever. The boys have for the most part proceeded along what Charles (who, as an exception, attends Durham University) calls the “prep school-Marlborough-Oxbridge conveyor belt,” while of the young women, only the appealingly serious Lynn has completed grammar school instead of nonselective comprehensive school, and Jackie and Lynn have married at 19. It’s perhaps not much of a surprise, then, that it’s the especially pigeonholed folks from these ranks who wind up giving Apted the most grief down the line. John, the young Tory who goes on to become a barrister, sits out 28 and only shows up again for 35 in order to promote a favorite charity. As far into the series as 49, single mother Jackie tells the director off for asking, in 21, whether she got married too young, a question she claims he wouldn’t have dared ask any of the other participants. Meanwhile, Charles, who, oddly enough, goes on to produce documentaries at the BBC, last appears in 21, making him the only one to abandon ship entirely—at least so far. (For further reference, see Wikipedia’s handy Up attendance chart.)


But educational prospects notwithstanding, it is also at year 21 that the lives of the subjects show signs of branching out in directions that Apted couldn’t exactly have foreseen. As a way of predicting that Tony would go on to become a career criminal, Apted films the East Ender—who left school at an early age, washed out as a horse jockey, and is now “on the knowledge,” committing to memory a vast system of routes and road signs in order to become a London cabbie—as he points out the haunts of various neighborhood “villains” (including the Kray twins, flamboyantly portrayed by Tom Hardy in the recent Legend). Needless to say, Tony relishes an honest challenge too much to fall into that particular trap, and it is by a great deal of self-starting that he and his wife, Debbie, are eventually able to lift their family into the middle class. Throughout the series, there is naturally a lot more opting into society than dropping out of it, but 21 Up does end on a heartrending note of renunciation—although at this early age, there’s no telling how passing a phase it might be. Neil, the bright-eyed Liverpudlian who sat alongside his schoolmate Peter in 7 Plus Seven and its predecessor, now appears disheveled and embittered, having kicked against the stability of his background (to use Apted’s phrasing) by leaving university after a single term and moving into a London squat.

21 Up is more involving than its predecessors, no doubt due in part to the sheer amount of primary material it now has to draw from. But it’s with the following installment that the series finally hits its stride, settling on a simpler one-person-at-a-time format that largely does away with the cumbersome compare-and-contrast editing of the previous films—though there are, of course, still near-constant reminders of what each individual has said and done on screen in the past. At the same time, 28 Up (1984) records some life changes that are genuinely startling, both for better and for worse. Apted finds Suzy—at 21 a chain-smoking dropout who, as a child of divorce, professes to hold very cynical views on marriage—married with two children and, perhaps even more strikingly, much more comfortable in her skin. The soft-spoken do-gooder Bruce, a socialist from an upper-middle-class background, has given up a job at an insurance company to teach mathematics at a Hackney, London, comprehensive school. And Nick, the farm-boy “success” who went on to study physics and chemistry at Oxford, has taken an assistant professorship across the pond in Madison, Wisconsin. (As it happens, despite the initial resistance from Apted, 28 Up was also the first entry in the series to show theatrically in the United States, where the director would eventually emigrate himself.)


But it is the story of Neil that comes to loom over not only the following installment but the ones immediately after it as well. When 28 catches up with him, he’s seen drifting about the Scottish Highlands, homeless and living off government assistance, alluding only vaguely, in response to Apted’s concerned questioning, to a “nervous complaint” that has dogged him for much of the past decade. There is a nobility to Neil’s forthrightness in this interview, but the thing is nonetheless tough to watch. “He was so ill we could only interview him in short bursts because he couldn’t really talk for very long… and we stood there, Michael and I, in tears,” the series’ longtime producer, Claire Lewis, said in Bruzzi’s book. “What happened, what went wrong? How do you take a child who is like that at 7 and is hardly functioning at all [by 28]?” The absorbing next chapter, 35 Up (1991), finds Neil in a scarcely less marginal situation in England’s far-northern Shetland Islands. “Do you ever think you’re going mad?” asks Apted. “I don’t think it, I know it,” responds the lank Neil, unkempt and visibly shaken.

Both 35 and 42 Up (1998) contain a number of surprising turns in the individual stories, most of them happy but a few similarly distressing. Jackie, who long ago said she didn’t want kids, winds up having three of them in her 30s. While squirming in front of the camera, the cabbie Tony has a pained back-and-forth about a recent episode of infidelity with his wife. And the longtime bachelor Bruce, who at one point goes abroad to work in Bangladesh, finally walks down the aisle back home in England. The sudden revelation, late in 42, of the kindly teacher’s offscreen friendship with Neil—instrumental in helping the latter man, adrift and resigned for so long, recover a sense of purpose—is perhaps the most profoundly moving stand-alone moment in all the series. But it doesn’t take that development to communicate to the viewer that these people, no matter how far-flung, are connected. Their voices have also cohered into of a sort of chorus as they deliver articulate and composed testimony on experiences that are no less devastating for the fact that they are, more or less, our common lot—deaths in the family, divorce, and professional disappointment among them.


Departing slightly from the form that the series has long since settled into, 42 Up concludes with an epilogue about the impact of the project on its subjects, a de facto talkback during which the librarian Lynn recognizes that “We’re linked, and that can never go.” In the subsequent 49 Up (2005) and 56 Up (2012), which roughly coincided with the rise of a more sensational strain of so-called reality television, there’s plenty of evidence that these people have thought a lot more about the cultural legacy (if any) of the program they’ve starred in for so long. John, for one, airs his skepticism that the endeavor has had much value at all. Meanwhile, appearing alongside Suzy in 56, Nick, consistently the sharpest critic of the bunch, recognizes that the program’s inevitable incompleteness as portraiture is essentially beside the point: “The idea of looking at a bunch of people over time and how they evolve was a really nifty idea. It isn’t a picture really of the essence of Nick or Suzy; it’s a picture of everyman.” As they reach middle age as reasonably contented and fulfilled people (that is, for the most part) the participants seem both more invested in the continuance of the Up enterprise and more guarded as to how much of their lives they feel comfortable disclosing to the camera. They’ve all long since learned that if this project is to continue, it must do so on their terms.

Nobody has shown himself to be more cognizant of the program’s blind spots than Apted himself, who has expressed regret, again and again, that the original 20 children were not a more varied lot—though he’s long tried to atone for the relative lack of women by giving several spouses (Tony’s wife, Debbie; Paul’s wife, Sue; and Symon’s second wife, Vienneta) significant screen time in their own right. But even if the series were to have offered a better-rounded social picture, it’s hard to imagine it taking too different a course from the one it has—the drama of the featured lives undoubtedly would’ve still wound up at the fore. The Up series “stopped being a political document and has become more of a humanist document,” Apted has said. “The series honors the ordinary life; it deals with things we all deal with… The series doesn’t disown politics, but deals with politics via character.”


And yet “humanist document” is by this point almost certainly too modest a descriptor for what Apted and his collaborators have done. The British novelist Julian Barnes, who once upon a time happened to pen a positive review of 28 Up for the London Observer, wrote in his mortality memoir, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, about the fundamental discrepancy of getting older: “When I was a boy, adulthood seemed an inaccessible condition—a mixture of unattainable competences and unenviable anxieties (pensions, dentures, chiropodists); and yet it arrived, though it did not feel from within how it looked from without. Nor did it seem like an achievement. Rather, it felt like a conspiracy: I’ll pretend that you’re grown up if you pretend that I am.”

The accomplishment of the Up series, with its unprecedented (and hopefully still expanding) time horizon, is to register a sense of what aging feels like not only from without but also from within. It presents a community of co-conspirators, the majority of whom seem bemused, begrudged, and perhaps also a bit bewildered when it comes time, yet again, for Apted and his crew to conduct their regular checkup. “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man” was the maxim that Seven Up! set out to test. But over the decades the series has done nothing less than turn that speculative thesis on its head. After all, these one-of-a-kind documentaries have become a record of how adults come to terms with, and struggle to grow beyond, the people they were in their youths.


Final Ranking:
1. 28 Up (1984)
2. 35 Up (1991)
3. 42 Up (1998)
4. 49 Up (2005)
5. 56 Up (2012)
6. 21 Up (1977)
7. Seven Up! (1964)
8. 7 Plus Seven (1970)