If The Up Series of documentaries are the greatest documentaries ever made, it is because it is the finest document of life ever recorded on film.
Every seven years since 1963, Director Michael Apted has done little more than check in on a group of 14 people. He’s been at it since they were 7 years old, and now in 2012, they are 56 and the latest chapter of the series has just finished airing on ITV in England.
Apted has asked about their hopes, dreams, loves, marriages, children, politics, ideologies, jobs and families. He asks about life.
His questions are short and simple, always delivered calmly and with resolve, and yet they require some soul searching in these people every seven years. Their answers arouse memories and emotions. Through their responses in each film, we are given the opportunity to draw comparisons. We can see the child they were and the adult they have become.
No documentary has ever been this ambitious. It is likely no team of filmmakers ever will again, although there have been copycats of this series from around the globe.
But the real beauty is that these are ordinary individuals. They are as true to life as you and me. At the age of seven, they did not choose this spotlight, and some have abandoned it altogether. They were chosen because they were people, and life, above all, is something that deserves to be documented, viewed and cherished.
Below are the stories and developments behind all seven films, excluding the most recent, which has not yet been released in America.
“Give me a child until the age of 7, and I will show you the man.”
This statement started it all, but although it sounds philosophical in nature, the original documentary was more political than personal.
Tim Hewat originally conceived the program as a segment for “World in Motion,” a British news show that wanted to examine how England’s class system seemed to filter kids into the adults they would become. The ones on the Oxbridge path, like John, Andrew and Charles, would become the lawyers, barristers, politicians and overall social “elites” of their generation. Those like Simon, who was an illegitimate black child, or Nick, who grew up in the rural hills of Yorkshire, would stand less of a chance.
Apted was only a researcher at this point. His casting of people on either end of the spectrum and not in the middle limited his results, and he admits he wouldn’t have done it the same way today.
But his effort is seen wonderfully. “Seven Up’s” ability to elicit any interesting responses out of kids this young is stunning. Mostly, they’re adorable and funny. Their answers aren’t serious but are amusing and even carry a grain of truth. And yet when the kids are being serious, their views can sound dated.
A young Bruce suggests going to Africa to civilize the natives so they can be good. Little Suzy feels it would be best for a nanny to raise her children rather than her. And even John at 7 years old seems pegged to be the poshest man in England, scolding Tony to “Stop it at once!” when he catches Tony hurling rocks at a polar bear.
Watching this first chapter today on its own, it’s hard to imagine how any of these kids may maintain their views or personalities coming into the 21st Century, but that’s what makes the transformation of The Up Series so remarkable.
Seven Plus Seven
I can’t remember half of the kids in “Seven Plus Seven” directly looking at the camera or at Apted even once. Suzy pouts and gives brief answers as she sits in luxurious clothes on her beautiful lawn. A nerdy looking Nick puts his head between his knees and cringes at the thought of being asked if he has a girlfriend. Tony shrugs when Apted asks what he’ll do if he can’t make it as a jockey.
These answers are normal for a 14-year-old, from 1970 or otherwise. But what is interesting about these responses is that “Seven Plus Seven” is no longer the cute, news profile feature that came before it. Here, we have Simon confessing that he always bluntly tells people he doesn’t have a father, we have John and Charles attacking the nature of the program and their portrayal, and the camera even gets consumed when a dog behind Suzy viciously attacks a rabbit and she continues as normal.
“Seven Plus Seven” is a much darker, more morose film than its predecessor. It’s the first mark of something great.
Watching it in tandem with “Seven Up” and you begin to get an idea of what Hewat originally had in mind. Some kids had rigid plans for where they were going to university, and others were more uncertain.
But the film finally started getting personal too. Maybe Apted didn’t know it at the time, but “Seven Plus Seven” is not a strictly political documentary. By combining Jackie, Lynn and Sue together again, you start to see much more guarded questions about their love lives than when they were giddy toddlers talking about what boys liked each other best.
You can also finally see the comparisons Apted and Hewat had intended to draw. The editing style that is developed here, beginning with the kids at their youngest age and then smash cutting to where they are now is a procedure that has carried through in all the films. Apted packages miniature narratives within each question and observes how that perspective has changed or adapted.
It’s with this film that we can begin to say, show me the filmmaker’s first movie, and I will show you the auteur.
One sequence of “21 Up” starts by showing the three upper class boys John, Andrew and Charles sitting on a sofa together. The next moment, they’re 14, and the boys are arranged on a different sofa the same way, this time taller. Finally, it jumps forward one more time, and the low angle shot shows the tall boys slouching and sliding off the sofa, their size having exploded and their demeanors alone having become more intelligent and cynical. These kids are now 21.
“21 Up” was the pivotal film in this documentary series. For the first time, Apted was not just comparing and contrasting but aiming to surprise.
Look at Suzy, now suddenly a nervous and bitter chain smoker. What happened to nerdy Nick, still living in the country but shockingly attractive and confident in his scientific endeavors at school? What about Tony, who is no longer a jockey but seems brimming with happiness and yet is shadily working as a bookie’s runner?
And Neil. Neither of the first two films ever had a character as compelling as Neil suddenly turned out to be. Apted found him living in a squat. The wallpaper was torn, the window was filthy, and Neil’s clothes were tattered. What must Apted have been thinking sitting on Neil’s dirty apartment floor? Something was wrong. This was not the perky boy we saw riding a bicycle 14 years ago. He had strange beliefs that ignored reality and the obstinacy of someone who would not wake up and notice the squalor he was living in. You watched him absolutely riveted and demanded to know what would happen next.
Part of this has to do with the luck of the cards we were dealt when the kids were first cast. Perhaps someone could have told you that Lynn would be married at the young age of 19, or that Simon would be working at a warehouse. No one, including Apted, could have known how lonely Bruce looked at 21 or that John and Charles would express such vocal disdain for the project they were participating in.
And yet Apted’s camera work is compelling, using clever cinematography and bold smash cuts to create the jarring effect at seeing how the kids have grown. His editing has formed into a powerful narrative, and the continuation of the episodic storytelling feels very much like a primitive reality show.
This was no longer just an experiment. This was the birth of a lifelong portrait.
Apted said that after completing “28 Up” and showing it to friends and executives he knew in Hollywood, he realized the film had universal appeal. People other than those aware of the British class system would find value in exploring these lives. He had the epiphany that this was something more, and not just a political statement.
20 years ago, Apted would’ve asked Simon about race and about the class system, but now firmly in the ‘80s, the world has changed, and so has Simon. He’s still working the same dead-end job, but if he lacks ambition, it has all to do with his personality and nothing to do with the British political system.
But for the first time since we left these characters, we have expectations for where they may be. Apted plays with those sensations and is surprised by what he finds himself. He openly tells Suzy that he did not expect to find her happy and bubbly at 28, after seeing how wretched and miserable she looked at 21. “What changed in your life,” he asks. “Well, Rupert I guess,” as the camera pulls back to reveal her husband sitting there with her.
You can even guess that this is not a film about British politics when it follows both Nick and Paul out of England. Nick landed a teaching job (and a wife) at the University of Wisconsin, and Paul uprooted his contractor job, abandoned civilization and rode around the Australian landscape in a VW bus with his girlfriend.
Many people presumed upon first watching “21 Up” that Neil might not return in the following film. Apted confessed that his team spent weeks tracking him down, only to find him homeless and more destitute than he was before. Here we started with an ordinary figure only to find a pitiful protagonist whom we cared for deeply. Few fiction films could have such a radical character development as Apted allows Neil in no time at all.
It’s in “35 Up” that Apted puts spouses and family front and center. They had always been areas of discussion in the past, but at 28 they were finally getting settled into adult life, and it’s only now that the true challenges of adulthood become clear.
At this point, many of the subjects have had to bury their parents. Apted finds a distant shot of Suzy’s father in “Seven Plus Seven,” and because he is so far away from us, the image has become solemn. Simon too lost his mother, the only parent in his life, and our last glimpse of her is walking towards the camera without recognition or a smile and walking away.
Although Apted has always asked hard questions about marriage, perhaps this is the first time they are properly equipped to answer. Some of the subjects have recently found love, others have lost it in divorce, and some like Bruce and Neil are still sadly lonely. Bruce especially worried me. In India, he appeared to be a fish out of water, awkwardly sitting in a classroom with children reciting “Bangladesh” to learn to speak the language. There’s even B-roll of him flirting with some Indian women in a small town, and he still seems without an answer as Apted asks if he’ll ever marry.
Although they themselves are not yet at the stage of total reflection and thoughts on mortality, the possibility hangs in the air. Neil has survived, but he says in another seven years he’s likely to be wandering the streets. The realization that not all of these people may even survive for the next film has become a distant possibility.
We meet up with Bruce once again at age 42, and he’s firstly asked simple questions about his job and his life. Now he’s back in London working as a Math teacher at a girls school. He’s doing fine, as always.
But then Apted asks Bruce about his love life. Five films in, I’ve been prepared to be heartbroken that Bruce, one of the nicest figures in the series, may still be single. Bruce is not married, but the bombshell is that Apted is there to film his wedding.
By “42 Up,” we know these people so well that Apted can lead us along on any narrative and it would be believable. He does momentarily set us up for a dramatic twist, a moment of failure. He does the same with Neil. He shows us the clip of him saying he’ll be wandering the streets by this time, and begins at 42 with him wearing a ratty trench coat and doing just that. But instead of wandering aimlessly, he walks into a government building and votes on a bill. What’s the even greater twist? He’s in Bruce’s wedding party.
“42 Up” most of all shows Apted’s skill as a director. He knows this film will be a crossroads chapter in most people’s lives, and yet he can alleviate the mood while still punctuating it with loss and nostalgia. We’re hurt to know some people have not been fairing as well, but it’s enough to know that others have found their way.
And this is a rocky film. There’s tension in Tony’s home when we learn that he cheated on his wife shortly after “35 Up.” Tony’s always been an upbeat figure, and he has an interesting way of justifying his wrongdoings to stay optimistic.
For Sue, she’s in a state of limbo, juggling complications romantically, financially and parentally. She’s had to deal with the loss of her mother and father, and yet there’s a glimpse of hope when we see her singing karaoke in a pub and the camera lingers on a handsome man watching her intently.
Jackie’s romance has been equally tumultuous, but her rock are her three children, revealed to us one at a time by the camera as Jackie serves each of them dinner.
And Lynn’s situation is the scariest of all. She confesses she has a rare disorder that has placed an extra vein in her brain. However, she continues to work with children and disabled individuals, and she presents herself not just as an ordinary woman or mother but also as a brave person whose morality, conviction and spirituality has carried her through middle age.
Looking at Lynn, we again wonder if all these people will be around for the next film. If this is true of the subjects, what about Apted? How long can these films continue?
The first thing Tony points out to Apted is that the trees in his backyard that he planted seven years prior are now the size of his house. He and his wife now own a summer home in Spain, they’ve lost a little more hair, but those trees are pretty much the highlight.
This is Apted’s way of saying that at 49, just shy of half a century old, life doesn’t change so much as everything within your life has grown and moved up in the world.
Tony again is a good example. Instead of both of them driving a cab, they now own one and hire someone else to do the driving. They’ve saved enough money to afford that summer home, and the bad blood after Tony’s adultery has become a thing of the past.
“The youth of today have more confidence and just deal with life,” says Suzy, which is perhaps why her children and the children of all the subjects have more going on in their life than their parents do. It’s potentially also the reason why Suzy finally considered bowing out of the program.
For all of them, “49 Up” represents nearly 50 years of their life story cataloged into 15 minutes a piece. Apted said about this film that it was the point that all of them began owning and committing to this project. He asks all of them the point of it all, and when John said back in “21 Up” that making this film is like taking a pill of poison every seven years, we realize for the first time that potentially all 14 of them share this view.
Apted has asked them these questions before, but this is 2005. Reality shows are everywhere. The world view of media has been revolutionized. John is the first to engage the debate of The Up Series’ merits. Is this a program that can be called a treasure over just trash?
What differentiates it is Apted’s voice as a director. The choices in the storytelling are his and have always been his. He eliminates big developments in the lives of their children, and he never introduces new footage that wasn’t already included in the previous film to create a new narrative. We’ve grown up with these people, but also with their specific stories. To change that now would be to ruin the sensation.
But watch how intense the backlash can get when Jackie challenges Apted’s perception. Her full potential is not represented in Apted’s film. She argues that previous films have already written her future long ago, and that the audience will fill in the blanks with further speculation. She’s powerless against his editing board. This argument is one of the most heated in the entire series, with Apted seemingly directing and splicing together this fourth wall breaking argument as it is happening.
It’s not surprising that Jackie would be upset. Take Bruce, who hardly recognizes his younger self when he sees the film. The 2005 Bruce seems the happiest he’s ever been in his life, and he’s drastically different from the sad, reserved boy and young adult he was until he was 42.
Others have maintained the stability in their lives, such as Paul or Andrew, who even looks relatively the same as he did seven, if not 14 years earlier. Others again have hit bumps in the road. The hiccup in Nick’s life is that the research he had been completing his entire career cannot be properly developed. He’s always been a more upbeat figure in the films, but even with a new wife, you can see how he’s shaken.
And as for Neil, he remains a curious character even in this less rocky period of his life. Unlike the dozens of reality shows, his story is still unpredictable. He offers personal insights to the camera unseen even in fictional TV or movies.
Like the 14 kids, The Up Series has already matured at this point, but as it becomes aware to all the other things that affect it, it will only continue to blossom.
Looking back at The Up Series
Some in England have quite literally grown up with these 14 individuals. They have watched the program since it was first aired in 1963 and followed it every seven years after. They have judged where these characters would be as they were living it.
I on the other hand found these films recently. They’re all available for Instant Streaming on Netflix and on DVD, and the potential to watch the evolution of 49 years within a week’s time is a remarkable gift. We’ve been groomed by reality shows to demand the next chapter immediately, and those new to the Up Series today will be surprised how much depth, meaning and complexity these films have in comparison to all the trashy reality shows of today.
I will concede that it is not feasible to watch all the films in such a short time frame. When you consider that it is now the seventh time we’ve seen some of this footage, it’s very easy to see how the films can get repetitive.
And admittedly, not all the characters are as interesting. No one person will bond or relate with every character, and others will unfortunately find some boring. Neil has generally been the consensus favorite because of his unusually eccentric life and personality. I hate to name names or pick and choose between these real flesh and blood people, but I’ve always most enjoyed the stories of Tony, Bruce, Nick and Neil. Tony, like an old friend, has always been first to greet us, and Neil has always been the one to say goodbye, leaving us eagerly awaiting the next time we meet. I also wonder if anyone in the film department at Wisconsin has ever sought out Nick on campus to ask what this experience has been like.
One of the concerns of the subjects is that the audience watches only to judge, laugh and predict the trajectory of their lives for 15 minutes every seven years. Maybe there is entertainment value in being able to see how a person has gotten fatter or lost hair over the years, but when I watch the Up documentaries, I wonder how I would answer these questions. What would I have said at 7, or at 21, which I am now? What will I think in another seven years time?
But are these films merely a document? Yes it’s important to keep records, but what is the Up Series about? Is “life” an adequate answer? Perhaps as a whole, yes. They’re about discovering the person you are, reflecting on the person you’ve been, predicting the person you’ll become and understanding the person you are not.
And as individual movies, they break down that lifelong formula into parts. “Seven Up” is about discovery and identity, “Seven Plus Seven” is about pursuit and aspirations, “21 Up” is about growth and change, “28 Up” involves maturity, “35 Up” deals with love and stability, “42 Up” is about hardship and permanence, and “49 Up” is about nostalgia and reflection.
What’s scary is that as we now hit “56 Up,” it may not be long before this series ends. Subjects could pass away, as could Apted. Would the series continue without him? How many would need to be living for this to continue? If one dies, what would that say about the imminent mortality of the others? Can the value of these films sustain if they get increasingly morbid?
These are questions for the future, which the Up series has always been wonderfully equipped to ask.