“Show me the child at seven and I’ll show you the man” is the phrase heard throughout the episodes of the Up documentary series, which originally premiered on British TV as Seven Up, in 1964. The series has followed the participants, 14 English children from a variety of backgrounds, every seven years since. Director Michael Apted, who has worked on all eight of the movies beginning as a researcher on the first, has interviewed the participants (down to 13 at this point, though three others temporarily opted out of some previous episodes) and directed every episode since the second. All 13 of them manage to defy the notion that their futures were set out for them early on, mostly in ways that are equally surprising and heartening to the late baby-boomers and Gen X’ers who could be said to have grown up with them.
Apted, as documentary makers do, asks the probing, tough questions designed to get them to reveal their inner frustrations, sucesses and disappointments, if possible revealing mere older versions of their younger selves. How they resist the simple answers, and how Apted, now unavoidably a character in his own creation, generally fails in his attempts to steer them into easy class categories, has become the underlying theme of the series including this newest film.
There is a ‘not what it seems’ story for almost all the characters. A good example is John, originally introduced to us as a prep-school kid, destined for Cambridge and future greatness. It is revealed that John was actually the product of a broken home, whose single mother worked two jobs to pay for his schooling, and that when John did indeed attend Cambridge, it was on a scholarship. In fact John’s school friend Charles, now a documentary filmmaker himself, is the only one of the original participants to drop out of the series entirely, even suing Apted at one point for his removal. For his part, John, a descendent of the first Prime Minister of Bulgaria, reveals that he’s only continuing with the series to gain publicity for his chosen charities.
Even Neil, whose very unpredictability was established early on- bright-eyed and charming at seven, smart and self-assured at 14, clearly troubled at 21 and homeless at 28- can still surprise. Now a thoughtful older man, philosophical about his own emotional problems, he is engaged in local politics, having found some sense of, if not happiness, at least purpose.
The same can be said for Peter, from the same middle-class Liverpool suburb as Neil, who dropped out of the series after 28 Up as the result of a vicious press campaign against him in the wake of his criticism of Margaret Thatcher in his interview. He’s now back, largely to promote his band, The Good Intentions, inspired by his love for the music of Gram Parsons.
Then there are the three working-class girls from East London, who have upbraided Apted more than once for attempting to get them to reveal resentment toward their upper-class peers. Instead they’ve followed solid career paths, Sue working at a university despite never attending one, and Lynn working as a librarian until recently being laid off due to budget cuts. But perhaps no character has changed more than Suzy, the one female from a wealthy background, who comes off a bit of a snob as a child and a 21-year old with very cynical views about love and marriage. Having grown into adulthood as a very warm, likeable woman, she is happily married and working as a bereavement counselor, a job watchers of the early episodes would likely never have imagined even a remote possiblity.
Most remarkable is the fact that of the 14 original participants, all are alive and in relatively good health. All have become not so much characters in a movie, but rather acquaintances its viewers can catch up with every seven years. Thus what is revealed is, rather than confirmation of Britain’s class consciousness, another notion that is very simple at its root- people are complex. Hopefully Apted, now in his early 70s, will continue the series for as long as he’s able before turning it over to someone else. 84 Up will be here before we know it.