What a gorgeous thing Michael Apted has made.
Quick recap for those who have never heard of the ‘Up’ series (I’ve always called it ‘Seven Up’ but apparently I’ve been wrong). The Up series started as a one-off documentary, filmed in 1964, interviewing 14 British children from a range of backgrounds at the age of seven.
The central premise of the show is based on the quote, attributed to the Jesuits: “Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll will show you the man”. In other words – are we all essentially unchangeable, are our core selves formed by the time we are seven? How much does your background and what you are born into shape who you are as an adult?
Michael Apted was a researcher on that first show, and he decided to turn it into a series that revisits the children every seven years, to take stock of their lives and continue to explore whether the ‘seven’ theory stands up. And so came ’14 up’, ‘21 Up’, ‘28 Up’, and so on.
What started as an exploration of class in Britain has turned into a singular project and a unique portrait of humanity, and the ’63 Up’ chapter feels like the most poignant one so far. The children we’ve known at seven are now in the autumn of their lives; they’ve softened, and become more reflective. Revisiting these people, who viewers have literally grown up with, makes for uniquely emotional viewing every seven years. I must have been watching these shows since my teens, and as it happens the show installments have coincided with my own seven year milestones – though at 35 years I am watching ‘63 Up’, so I’m five life episodes behind. Which makes it difficult not to compare myself with the characters you know so well, and what they were doing at my age.
Over the years the series has grown and developed in ways that you suspect the filmmakers did not foresee, and it becomes more and more meta with every chapter. In a way these people have been living in a Truman Show-type situation in that their personal lives are our entertainment, and naturally the participants all react differently to that. Some choose to drop out of the show for some installments – though all but one come back – and many talk about what a painful experience the program is for them.
Apted is not a perfect interviewer and that is part of the charm of the series. There is a real love between him and the participants (apart from John who apparently refuses to speak to him), despite some of his harsh comments and ill advised questions over the years. They sometimes push back. Watching Jackie tell him off about his ignorant and sexist questions all the way back from ’21 Up’ is very gratifying indeed. The participant’s relationship to Apted has grown over the years, as well as their relationship to the show. It’s clear that the very fact they are on the show has in some ways shaped their lives, at very least in their knowledge that their life decisions will be made public.
Of course distilling seven years of someone life into 15 or 20 minutes is never going to give you a nuanced insight, and I spent a lot of time during ’63 Up’ wondering what might have fallen between the cracks. But still, I feel like I know the characters. I’ve loved watching Tony progress through life and was shocked when he admitted to infidelity on ’42 Up’. I’ve spent years shaking my head at John, enjoyed seeing Andrew become more humble with age, was delighted that Sue found love after her years as a solo parent, and have been amazed at Jackie’s strength. More than anything though, I have been worried about Neil. I think everyone has been worried about Neil, judging by the fact that he was the last segment of the show. I even felt real and totally irrational anger at Suzy, who has always been very dismissive about the show and who very annoyingly opted out of ’63 Up’.
More than a commentary on class which is set out to be, the series really just demonstrates so plainly what is important in life. And overwhelmingly, without exception, that is relationships. Health, career, money, opportunities, moving overseas, these are all factors that impact the lives of our beloved Uppers, but ultimately the only things that really really matters, that makes them cry, that truly marks the passing of time, are relationships. People, goddamit. Seinfeld was right, they’re the worst. But they’re also kind of the best; the best that we’ve got at least.
Although the Uppers are drawn from a relatively narrow pool, I would bet that you could make this show with people from anywhere in the world and come to the same conclusion. Considering that in the scheme of the world they haven’t had particularly difficult lives – they were raised in peacetime, they are almost all upwardly mobile – the show is still incredibly sad for reasons that are difficult to pin down. It has something to do with the depiction of the passing of time, with the sense of our own mortality that we see reflected on screen. In ’63 Up’ there’s a feeling that their best days are behind them, and there is a lot of talk of death. The interview scenes with Nick, who is visibly reeling from a recent cancer diagnosis, are unbelievably affecting. It’s pure raw human emotion, and it’s simply stunning television.
People have speculated that this will be the final Up, mostly because Apted himself is not getting any younger. This fantastic article in the Times gives us a peek behind the curtain. Time will tell what happens next, but it’s certain that what he has created so far is one of the most beautiful works of documentary in history.