The Up series, wherein 14 Britons from different walks of life are interviewed every seven years, has taken on mythic proportions over the years. Michael Apted, who in 1964 was a researcher for Granada Television’s first standalone documentary, Seven Up!, was encouraged to find subjects from as wide an array of economic backgrounds as possible. And with each new entry, Apted loops his latest findings about the still-participating individuals back around to the grainy black-and-white footage from that cold first day at the London Zoo. As such, the series is both a testimonial to the vagaries of chance and an endlessly cyclical study into the implications of being studied. The series’s openness to the participants’ concerns is its compassionate signature.
56 Up works beautifully, less as a film standing on its own two legs than as yet another summit reached by Apted, his interviewees, and his archivists. Discussing themselves on screen, most of the participants have by 56 accepted their involvement as something akin to a public service. Suzy, who didn’t know any better at seven, was shy and resentful at 14 and icily chain-smoking at 21, and has been happily married since 28, averred on camera each time until 56 Up that it was her final go at being profiled. Yet here she is again, befuddled at her own involvement, which she attributes to a “ridiculous loyalty, even though I hate it.” Over the years, some have opted out—like Peter, who appears for the first time since 28 Up, claiming his appearance is chiefly to promote his new country band. (He withdrew from the project after comments denigrating the Thatcher regime in 28 Up earned him the reputation of an “angry young Red.”) Or maybe it’s because his life since was hardly touched upon by Apted in the subsequent films, or because Peter, now married with two children and working for the U.K. Civil Service, feels that he has more control over his image now that he’s almost 30 years older.
Apted allows his subjects to opine pretty freely on the Up series’s role in shaping their own images, to justify (even if only to themselves) their willingness to sit for the camera every seven years. Nick, who grew up a farmer’s son in the Yorkshire Dales and trained as a physicist at Oxford, complained in 21 Up about the inherent inability of the series to form an “absolute picture.” Nick’s first wife appeared alongside him in 35 Up and later claimed that their interview, so fraught with tension and ambiguity, hastened their divorce. Yet Nick returns each time, probing the meaning of the series and his relationship to it. Over a montage of new and old clips that sees Nick somewhat worriedly walking across the University of Wisconsin’s campus, he says ponderously that the series “is not an absolutely accurate picture of me, but it’s the picture of somebody. And that’s the value of it.”
Neil, the emaciated loner who spent years off the grid, living his life on benefits, hobbled by nervous delusions and botched jobs, remains the series’s life-scorched conscience. A Liberal Democrat of the municipal works council of a town in a remote chunk of Cumbria, in far-northern England, he indicates a roadside bathroom: “I can assure you that no more fierce battle has been fought, either on the playing fields or indeed on the battlefields of England, to save what might appear to be a comparatively insignificant immunity.” As a younger man Neil appears fatalistic, miserable, at rock bottom. (He’s the only participant to whom Apted can be heard asking if they “worry about their sanity.”) His newfound swagger is perhaps both a symptom and a perk of the series—the continued realization, played out over and over, that he’s going to live after all.