British filmmaker Michael Apted’s movies range from big Hollywood biopics to small political documentaries. He was an assistant on that film, called Seven Up and he ran with it. Every seven years Apted has filmed those same people in movies called 14 Up, 21 Up, and so on until now those former 7-year-olds are 63 years old – and Michael Apted is 78.
If you want to think of the Up Series as sociology, it’s an extraordinary longitudinal study of a semi-diverse group of people in the United Kingdom. If you take the series as drama, which it is, it’s a thrilling look at how people get older.
Devotees of the Up Series – and I am one of them – get itchy every seven years wondering what’s happened to Tony who at seven wanted to be a jockey, but a few films later wound up a cab driver in London. There are Paul and Symon who met in an orphanage. Over the course of the films, Paul moved to Australia, worked in construction, married, had children and is now a grandfather. Symon struggled, had odd jobs, married, had children, proved a poor father, divorced, but then remarried and seems to have found himself. He now lives a stable working-class life with grandchildren and a happy marriage.
Sue was one of three working class girls who sit together in the early films. She married, had children, divorced, went back to school and is now a top administrator at a London law college.
The Up Series pictures an informal test of the class system, which seems to determine the opportunities for many of the people in the film – 21 in all – but as Sue says, it’s less rigid than you might expect. And there are surprises. One of a trio of private school boys – John – seemed the most snobbish of the three. He became a barrister, as he says, in a curly white wig. But at 56 John reveals he was a scholarship student, raised by a widowed mother and has been deeply committed to a charity that helps the poor in Bulgaria. Upper class Bruce studied math at Oxford, taught in a poor London neighborhood and went to teach in Bangladesh for a time – yet now he’s back teaching at a private school for wealthy girls.
Every person in the film comes to matter, and with each of them – and with each film – comes the profound drama and the wonder of human life. Neil was a beautiful 14-year old and then something snapped. At 35 he was homeless, wandering a Scottish island in the rain – but quite literally he was saved. There’s nothing like this series.
But as Michael Apted has said each film has to stand on its own, which means that each film has to distill the essence of all the films before it so that a new audience gets a sense of what has happened with each of its people. And by 63 Up, that’s too much, even for a film nearly three hours long. You get too little of each biography and the stories pass by too quickly. Yet the series is magnificent, so I suggest that a newcomer might look at a couple of the earlier films first. Then 63 Up will make better sense and it won’t feel that the heart of the matter has been cut short. It’s worth the trouble.