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49 Up

In 1964 Michael Apted handpicked a group of seven-year-olds from the poles of the UK’s social spectrum to be in a short black and white documentary called “Seven Up”.   The children were asked their views about the opposite sex, race, class, violence and what they saw themselves getting up to in the future.   Often very funny, the film looked at the institutions that shaped their lives, highlighting in particular the inequities in their educations.   It was meant to show that Britain’s class system hadn’t broken down at all: those born into the upper class still started out way ahead and would likely go on to lead the lives largely laid out for them.   The working-class children’s futures were up in the air, and yet it was certain that they wouldn’t jump the track determined by their class.   Here we had a glimpse of the “CEO and the shop steward of the year 2000,” the narrator told us.   “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”   Every seven years since, Apted has revisited the “Uppers” (as he affectionately refers to them) to document their unfolding lives on film.  

And so the future becomes the present, and here is our crew at age 49 in the afternoon of life.   Each film in the series has added layers of richness.   As they grew up we watched them grapple with all the great themes: love, death, faith, dreams, work, happiness, illness, the meaning of life.   Though they were chosen to represent their class, over the years the subject of the series has become these people as individuals; the agenda of looking at the structure of British society has largely been dropped, except as that structure is refracted through these personal stories.  

Rather than tell you what the Uppers are up to now, thereby ruining the experience of “49 Up” for you, I thought I’d just say a bit about what I’ve learned from this series, which has taught me more than any other film.   I’d perhaps sum it up by saying that it taught me that people are people.   For example, one of the Uppers is a chap called John, a child of privilege and a self-described “reactionary” who could have stepped out of Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year” skit.   Before seeing this film, the Jacobin in me might have clamored for the tumbrel for such a person.   Yet I’m quite fond of him.   (He had me at age 14 with his surprising condemnation of racial discrimination: “It’s rather vile”, says the teenage John.   Why?   “Because so is any kind of discrimination.”   He takes a beat to think, then goes on (in that entertainingly polemical British style), “—of a basic nature that you can’t change.   I couldn’t care less whether people are discriminated against because they’re nasty or selfish or anything.   But one can’t help one’s color.”).   Ironically then, a series that started out as a left-wing tract taught me about the humanity of the upper class.   (John appears in the films these days mainly to raise the profile of Friends of Bulgaria, a UK charity providing humanitarian aid to that nation, much of it earmarked for disabled children).  

Or take the case of Suzie, an upper-class girl who as a young person comes off as uncurious, apathetic, cynical and, like many of us at that age, generally possessed of an attitude that is not all that it might be.   Stunned by her transformation on “28 Up”, in which she appears as a new woman—serene, warm, mature, interested—I suppose I learned what “growing up” truly means: finding a way to live in resonance with who you are.   It’s one of the most stunning illustrations of the transformative powers of happiness that I’ve ever seen.

This brings us to Neil, whose story is for me somewhat of a cautionary tale.   Once a care-free, dancing 7-year-old, Neil grew up to be a deeply troubled man, an isolated and hermitic eccentric bobbing in and out of the frame in sequences that still haunt me.   Where did that boy with light in his eyes go?   Without giving away too much, I’m pleased to report that in “49 Up” Neil seems to have acquired some peace of mind.   Even if it’s still not always an easy one to tread, at least he’s found his path. It makes us glad, because we know that he wandered for so long.      

A word should be said about the series’ wealth of striking images, from “Seven Up’s” verite-style black and white cinematography (I’m thinking of the shot of young Nicholas, who grew up to be a physicist and moved to America, walking neath the jutting crags of his rural home in the Yorkshire Dales) to the now classic compositions of the three working-class girls, Jackie, Lynn and Sue, repeated every seven years.   The series is a reminder of the descriptive value of film itself: image and sound are worth so much more than words when it comes to documenting human beings.   It’s become quite a feat of montage to weave the program together, making thematic and visual links that allow us to see the child in the adult, and the adult in the child.

Clearly the Uppers would like to believe that one’s character—not one’s class—is one’s fate.   Across class lines, those who acknowledge the premise of the program seem rather insulted by it.   In particular, the youths portrayed as privileged have always viewed the project a bit askance.   And though some of the Uppers believe strongly in the importance of the series (some observers have even credited it with keeping Neil alive), they all might agree with Jackie, who in “49 Up” tells Apted off—this man who has chronicled her life with his camera every seven years since she was a small child—saying, in essence, don’t shape my life to fit your agenda, and don’t think this movie is a whole portrait of me at any time.   To his credit, Apted is honest enough to include this footage (she reportedly hugged him at the film’s premiere for leaving it in).

My own view is that if the series has ended up disproving its own thesis in some ways, it’s made its original point in many others—perhaps most strikingly the point that people can’t really be equal if they’ve not had equal educational opportunities.   However, it’s interesting to note that over the course of the series there’s not been nearly as much class envy expressed by the working-class people as you might expect.   And as for the idea that the core of who we are is formed in our childhood—and remains intact despite all the changes we go through—the series is a cogent illustration of that notion.   I’d imagine that most of us can think of ways in which this is true: I was known to my grade school peers for writing stories that were pages longer than everyone else’s (readers of my reviews can testify to my ongoing struggle with concision).  

The “Up” series stands as one of my favorite films.   It’s a profoundly humanist piece, deeply commemorative of ordinary lives, documenting the passing of time in its sadness and its beauty.


- Nov 30, 2006

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