’56 Up’ reaches middle-age in filmmaker Michael Apted’s remarkable documentary series. This is the ultimate reality show. Apted launched it back in 1964. It originally aired on the BBC titled ‘7 Up.’ It was about a group of schoolchildren from all walks of life in England. It became so popular that Apted decided to revisit them every seven years. It allowed the audience to follow their lives. So when they turned 14, a new documentary turned up titled, ’14 Up,’ then ’21 Up,’ ’28 Up’ and so on. It is fascinating to watch as it takes on the qualities of a sociology case study. In a sense, it is voyeurism 2.0.
Apted has had a productive filmmaking career including a Bond film, a Chronicles of Narnia film and ‘Gorillas in the Mist.’ However, it is the ‘Up’ film series that he will probably be remembered for on his epitaph. Now 72-years old, it is unclear how long he will continue with it or hand it off to another director. It definitely has life left in it as the participants approach old age. The dramatic effect with the passage of time is evident. It is a haunting experience to watch the people age almost 50 years within a matter of seconds. The film editing allows the audience to witness the ravages of time firsthand.
It isn’t necessary to have kept up with the series over the years to appreciate it. The John Lennon quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans” rings true as Apted sits back down with his middle-aged subjects. For the most part, Apted discovered that most of them are doing reasonably well in their lives. Now the group consisting of 13 of the original 14 (one dropped out of the project), are settled into their lives. Most are married. Some are remarried and appear to be happier the second time around. Many of them have grown children who are starting their own families and making them doting grandparents. They are all proud of their kids.
Their dissatisfaction with the series is that it’s just a glimpse into their lives. “That’s all there is to you, this tiny snippet of your life?,” questions Nick. Suzy goes on to say, “It’s like reading a bad book but I’ll still see it through.” Both Nick and Suzy come from upper-class backgrounds. Nick became an accomplished nuclear physicist, remarried and settled in the United States. Suzy became a homemaker and raised two children. She grapples with the fact that her affluent upbringing may have dampened her motivation to succeed in a career. In contrast, three girls from London’s working-class East End are profiled (Sue, Jackie and Lynn). Sue raised her kids as a single-mom but managed to have a successful career as a university administrator. Jackie has raised kids too but has spent years on disability. Lynn’s pension kicks in as she is laid off as a librarian due to budget cuts.
Apted has a laid back way of asking questions. He also knows how to throw in the occasional “curveball” question that gets some of them to rant about the economic downturn. The safety net that the British social system has always provided shows signs of weakness. This affects the participants that are not as well-off as the others. One compelling story is the troubled Neil who was homeless at times in his life. He is now a small-town politician and is a minister at a local church. He never married. There is still a burning desire in him to achieve more in his life through his writing. Neil sums it up nicely by saying, “Perhaps we’re most happy when we’re not aware of it.”
What is most compelling about ’56 Up’ is the fact that we can relate to the very same things in the series. We were all children once. We are all dealing with growing older and find meaning in our lives too. ’56 Up’ will open exclusively at The Flicks theatre on March 1st.