In a recent interview, British director Michael Apted described the genesis of the “Up” series of documentaries: “It was a one-off film. It was a rather a brilliant idea by people who were running a show called World in Action, of having a look at the English class system in 1964 by just getting a group of (fourteen) seven-year-old children from different social backgrounds and asking them questions, rather than getting politicians or economists.” A few years later, someone had the idea of revisiting the children at the age of fourteen, and thus a major portion of Apted’s professional identity was already in place as he took the whole thing on from there (he’s also directed many fiction films, including Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist). The eighth installment, 56 Up, is showing at the Bloor Hot Docs cinema as I write: if you miss it there, it’ll no doubt be available soon in other formats.
History of England
Remarkably, all but one of the fourteen are still with the project, although a few of them skipped some of the intervening years (ironically, and to Apted’s expressed annoyance, the one remaining hold-out is himself a documentary producer). The format never changes – each participant gets around ten minutes, blending snippets of previous encounters with new footage and conversations. Each segment calmly blends work and family, achievements and regrets, fears and anticipations. Much of the appeal flows from the world’s-slowest-cliffhanger quality – will this seemingly shaky marriage have lasted; will this precarious financial situation stabilize; most viscerally, how much worse will everyone look after another seven years on the tires? As always, the new edition covers all of this as faithfully as any edition of a proven franchise should.
It’s hard to conclude on the series’ relative importance as more than that. Apted says: “…what’s interesting about it, it is the history of England. I’ve always avoided being very specifically political, actually talking about political events of the time because somehow it seems to date it. But…you’re telling a part of British history, of social history. And I think that’s kind of what’s powerful about it. It’s telling the history of the country through character, through people and not through ideas, not through polemic, not through whatever. But… their lives stand for a lot of political ideas..” In the new edition, this evidences itself most directly through a recurring worry about the state of the country – several participants refer to government cutbacks, or the increasing difficulty of making ends meet – and about the prospects for their kids (all but two of the fourteen I think, even those in relatively more modest occupations, own their own pleasant-looking homes, something that’s becoming almost impossible for young people in Britain now).
The children were drawn from across the social spectrum (although the times being what they were, they were heavily weighted toward white males), and a large part of the subtext has always hinged on class-based predestination: each edition closes by positing provocatively: Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man. In the new film, one of the more successful participants, a barrister (just as he predicted from the start), criticizes this premise, pointing out his father died when he was nine and he needed a scholarship to get into Oxford. But this can’t overcome the almost eerie confidence of that seven year-old, nor the fact that the other “upper-class” boy in the bunch was also already planning a career in the law, and also achieved exactly that (the one more highly-sourced girl in the group never had a career, but she married well). By comparison, the less privileged children went through the more typical process of grabbing at dreams which never transpired, experiencing a more chaotic, inconsistent momentum. And although the group as a whole seems to have experienced a roughly typical proportion of divorce, none of it happened to that higher echelon (at least as far as we can tell – one of the segments is oddly coy on the matter).
But of course, anything I might say along these lines is limited by the obvious objection that a sample of fourteen people, limited to ten minutes or so each, doesn’t have any statistical validity as a basis for drawing wider conclusions. In the Star, Peter Howell called the series “a valuable contribution to social research,” but I can’t imagine any serious social researcher would get anything significant out of it. And then bizarrely undercutting that judgment, he complains elsewhere in his review that “what they’re doing isn’t all that interesting, especially in this Internet age when all the world’s a stage. Much more colourful characters are just a mouse click away on YouTube.” His implication, I guess, is that unless you’re a dedicated social researcher, and thus conditioned to tedium, you’re better off watching people train their dogs to dance.
Still, Howell does clumsily get at something intriguing, that maybe the series is best appreciated as a vast one-of-a-kind, serendipitous art project, and its primary virtues are aesthetic rather than sociological, teasing us to connect as best we can (which might be not at all) based on our own backgrounds and experiences (it’s no surprise that if I had to choose, I identify most closely with the kid from a remote Northern village who now lives in America, not that our lives are very similar beyond that). Maybe almost any reaction to the work as Apted organizes it is as valid as any other. If I comment that I’ve perhaps never seen a film containing so many fleshy upper arms, is that frivolous and reductive, or a legitimate example of one of many interlocking ripples and patterns?
And yet, the film does have moments which pierce, not just in themselves, but as an apparent trace of broader experience. One of the lawyers married a woman who stayed at home to bring up the children, but they’ve grown now, and she talks about the lack of anything to do, but that it’ s too late to change that; her husband gently suggests that’s more about her lack of self-confidence. You suddenly feel, all the more keenly because it’s so understated, the vast aridity of her life, spreading over day after day when he’s away, far removed from real-world problems (their vast marvel of a lawn produced gasps from the audience when I saw the film), but all the more marooned because of it. Objectively, I suppose her situation is still more desirable than that of many of the other women, but maybe I’m only saying that – going back to the inevitable subjectivity of responses - because I’m more capable of imagining comfortable desolation than I am of appreciating life on the edge. Maybe Apted’s series is largely a historical Rorschach test, but then, it often takes much greater time and distance for history to reliably become more than that.