The new instalment in Michael Apted‘s Up series, 63 Up, is excellent. This series of documentaries, which started with 7 Up in 1964, tracks a group of seven year old British boys and girls as they grow up in real time. Apted (famous for directing some major Hollywood movies like Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, Nell, and The World is Not Enough) was a very young researcher when the original came out, but he has made a follow-up every seven years and now, we catch up with the subjects as they turn 63.
Not that many people seem aware of this momentous project but for those of us who are, we adore it. There’s really nothing else like this and despite Apted’s Hollywood outings, this series really is the monument of his artistic career. The only film project I can think of as coming even close is the cycle of films by Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. In those films, each spaced ten years apart, the fictional characters portrayed by Hawke and Delpy are filmed almost in something like real time as they walk around and discuss their life choices and who they’ve become. However, these are works of fiction though they do have a heavy dose of realism to them – you can tell that a fair amount of personal energy has been brought to the collaborations. Linklater’s Boyhood utilizes the same actors that age over a number of years but doesn’t feel as personal or soul searching as his cycle of films with Delpy and Hawke. I’m really hoping that they will do a fourth one soon.
The Up documentaries on the other hand feel like a given, and the knowledge that seven years have passed since we last checked in with our subjects is almost like going to a family reunion. These are real people contending with real lives, suffering real setbacks, reckonings, and joys. Is it voyeuristic? Perhaps. The subjects themselves have struggled with the burden of being under the documentary lens and a couple have opted out at various times, but for the most part, the subjects endeavour to give an account of where they are and how they view their lives in the present. Some express this effort as a kind of responsibility they feel towards the series and the viewing public. Are the subjects truly a cross-section of Britain? Not exactly. They all seem to have been hand picked at seven years old because of their expressiveness and volubility. Both girls and boys were drawn from (although there are definitely more boys than girls), but there was only one person of colour – Symon (of mixed race), who was living in a charity home at seven years old with one of the other participants, Paul. What the films do stress is the class divide between those children who come from more impoverished working class backgrounds and the children who are born into privileged households. Apted has said that focusing on the class divide was a main focus for him while working on the original film.
63 Up is about three hours long but it flies by, partly because Apted uses key clips from previous installments to bracket the new interviews, as he’s always done. In this way, you get a real portrait of these people growing through time. He starts the film with Tony and ends with Neil as they are perhaps the most interesting interviewees. Tony is extremely charismatic and full of life, an energetic East Londoner who grew up poor living in a block of flats, married young, tried to be a horse jockey but settled for driving a taxi, admitted to cheating on his wife, and is now a grandfather with a large family. Throughout, there’s a real working class chuff and charm to the way he openly discusses his dreams and setbacks, his ability to move on from horse racing and build a solid lower middle class life. His wife has stayed with him and they have almost a kind of vaudeville routine to the way they relate to each other – it’s fascinating to watch, especially as his wife playfully upbraids him in her plain but witty and sharp manner. Tony’s aches and disappointments are our aches and disappointments and the films seem to know that he is the mascot of the series. Neil is a very interesting person who appeared bright and inquisitive and ambitious as a child, shown riding his bike, playing chess, pontificating philosophically, and dreaming of one day becoming an astronaut. His life takes a turn for the worse as he grows older: dropping out of university, picking up manual labour jobs where he can, suffering a spell of homelessness, being diagnosed with mental illness and moving from town to town, until he settles in Cumbria as a local council representative. Despite ongoing struggles with depression, he serves without pomp or pride as a local politician and lay minister. At least for me, there was something very relatable about Neil too. The struggles he went through were alarming and they could have or could still happen to any of us; it’s hard not to suffer with him as you watch him speak about his life in a pained yet struggling manner, eschewing the safety of privacy, and working to make both his life and community better. He even spoke in this installment of a romantic partner he was trying to mend fences with, although he didn’t know if it was too late.
The trio of Jackie, Lynn, and Sue – three friends from the same working class East London school – are interesting too, with their ups and downs. Lynn, a children’s librarian who advocated for children with mental health challenges, has passed away since the last installment, but the filmmakers caught up with her children and it makes for a moving segment. It’s the first Up where one of the subjects is not present due to death (although another is struggling with cancer), as opposed to simply not choosing to be interviewed. As many people have commented, questions as to how many future installments will be possible (Apted is close to eighty and his subjects themselves are reckoning with the challenges of approaching senior citizenship) arise but I hope that someone else will take on the mantle even if Apted himself cannot continue. The boys from privileged backgrounds, John and Charles, continue to have lives that progress pretty much as they and others had expected: as extremely successful lawyers. John has chafed against the way he’s been portrayed, claiming that his mother had to work hard and make significant sacrifices to give him the opportunities he’s had (although he does also admit to coming from a very successful line of Bulgarian politicians), and Charles continues to be affable without really revealing much about the more personal difficulties or strife, if any, in his family life.
Bruce is a person I’m always interested in catching up with. He started off life in a boarding school (and missed his father, who was in Rhodesia, very much), following severe rules and enduring harsh discipline at the hands of older boys, and ended up casting aside the pretensions of his class for a more idealistic calling. He taught math at a public elementary school in East London, dealing with fairly impoverished students from an immigrant population. For a little while, he even traveled to India to teach and learn more about the place his students came from. When he heard about Neil’s struggles with mental health and homelessness, he took the fellow interviewee in for a while, though it was hard on both of them – none of the other interviewees felt that responsibility towards someone they didn’t know. Bruce seemed wonderful, though a little forlorn. He struggled with the prospect of finding a romantic partner, eventually meeting someone and starting a family late in life, and then finally took a position at a private school where the circumstances were easier.
Apted has never really been an overly sensitive interviewer – he asks Bruce point blank why he’s given up his idealistic outlook and why Neil changed from a happy go lucky kid to a man on the skids. These are not easy questions to answer; they deal with the essence of what life is, and the subjects attempt admirably to reckon with them. All of the subjects contend with their role as a (perhaps skewed) cross-section of the British population under the microscope of the viewing public. Questions of class come up and the divide still exists. Those who did not start off from a place of privilege like Tony and Sue still feel it’s unfair, and rightly so. People like John either try to justify their standing or as in the case of Charles, admit that it’s unfair, but don’t feel like they can do much about it. The matter is complicated by the sound of Apted’s voice from off camera as he asks questions – different accents mark the class a person belongs to in Britain and Apted’s accent is noticeably more posh than his working class interviewees.
In the new installment, Charles says that class is now more predicated on financial success than social status. There’s something to what he says (society has definitely shifted over the last fifty years), but the sense of inequality and the oppressiveness that plagues some people’s lives and not others is perfectly captured as you watch these people age. One can ask why Bruce chose to try and help people if nothing could be done about the way things are. And he’s not the only one – Neil and Lynn also care about people and their communities for no other reason than believing in endeavouring to make things better. The subjects who come from working class backgrounds are the most relatable of the set, but all of these people’s lives are interesting; due in no small part to the effectiveness of the interviews and filmmaking. There are no great flourishes or dramatic turns (except those that life deals to everyone – such as death), but their quotidian struggles are wholly engrossing and fascinating. In that way, the people do serve as a sort of cross-section for the Western viewing public. As they face the changes in political times and society and age we all face, they reckon with them as only we can – one year at a time.