The Up Series

Synopsis: Starting in 1964 with Seven Up, The UP Series has explored this Jesuit maxim. The original concept was to interview 14 children from diverse backgrounds from all over England, asking them about their lives and their dreams for the future. Every seven years, renowned director Michael Apted, a researcher for Seven Up, has been back to talk to them, examining the progression of their lives.

From cab driver Tony to schoolmates Jackie, Lynn and Susan and the heart-breaking Neil, as they turn 49 more life-changing decisions and surprising developments are revealed.

An astonishing, unforgettable look at the structure of life in the 20th century, The UP Series is, according to critic Roger Ebert, “an inspired, almost noble use of the film medium. Apted penetrates to the central mystery of life.”

The Up Series 7.5

The ‘Up Series’, as it is now called, was borne in 1963 as a short documentary called ‘Seven Up’. Loosely based on the Jesuit expression “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”, the film gave a brief account of the lives and personalities of about a dozen seven-year-old children, indicating somewhat ominously at the end that they were the future of Britain.

The purpose was to take a look at the effect of a class-based society on future generations, and the divide between the poor and rich children was initially a focus of the questions and interactions. That changed over time as the series’ filmmakers have been revisiting these same children at seven-year intervals ever since (although some have dropped out along the way). They are due to film and release ’56 Up’ in the next 3 years.

I know that it’s not a film, per se, but I felt that it’s too much of a significant social experiment to ignore. Furthermore, most of these television productions are full-length documentaries in their own right – so I would have wanted to comment on them anyway. I just figured that it was best to discuss it as a whole – especially since the individual segments would contain spoilers.

So how does one comment on a series like this one, anyway? Well, I guess I will start by rating each instalment individually:

Seven Up 8.0
7 Plus Seven 7.5
21 6.5
28 Up 7.0
35 Up 7.5
42 Up 7.5
49 Up 7.5

My overall sense is that it’s a truly unique, surprising and inspiring series. While none of the segments are really riveting (some of the participants are much less interesting than others!), watching them develop over years certainly put one’s life in perspective: after all, these are regular folk leading regular lives – just like most of us.

This is ‘real’ reality TV. It’s exactly the results you would get if any of our lives were followed decade-in, decade-out; there are no overly dramatic storylines, no camera-mugging, no star-making turns. The drama exists in the hopes and fears of these individuals, in the emotional ties that we make with them and in the expectations that we all carry from one segment to the next.

I mean, we all face drama in our lives – in the career choices we make, in our family relations, in the lives (and deaths) around us, …etc. It’s just that we don’t have cameras sitting there to document everything, to recap our highs and lows for the world to see. In the ‘Up Series’, this is exactly what happens to the participants – although each segment is more of a distillation of the last seven years than a detailed document.

To someone like me, who is fascinated with (and frequently appalled by) human behaviour, a show like this is pure gold. However, along the way, I had my share of concerns about this social experiment:

For one, by virtue of the fact that they are on television and that they know they will be called back every seven years, I believe that this skews the data. I know that I would be a bit self-conscious and would probably feel compelled to alters my life‘s path to survive the close scrutiny or to have something to show for the most recent seven years of my life. I’m sure that I’m not alone (hence why I referred to this as ‘real’ reality TV – it’s only as real as the participants allow themselves to be)

Secondly, I found that the director/interviewer could be terribly biased in his questioning and was oftentimes all too cruel to some of the participants: he has asked questions of the less-to-do people that he wouldn’t have considered with the higher-status ones, has challenged the sanity of one of the more troubled participants, and has even questioned the integrity of some of them. I felt that it was wholly unnecessary and dubious at best; it hardly sounds impartial and I hated that he seemed to have pre-judged the participants. Let the viewers make up their minds, I say.

On that note, let me briefly discuss my thoughts on each participant – in alphabetical order:

Andrew: from a pretentious prepubescent to Joe Boring, by ‘21’ I could hardly wait for his segments to finish crawling by. Yawn.

Bruce: probably the nicest, most well-intentioned soul of the lot. Not an exciting feller, but certainly the kindest. You can only wish him the best.

Charles: sadly, one of the more compelling participants and we didn’t see enough of him. I would have loved to get a better sense of who he was and what he’s up to.

Jackie: I really want to root for this gal. While she seems to have lost her way in some fashion, she has fire and heart, and I really hope that she manages to pull through everything she faces.

John: truth be told, he sort of creeps me out. While I liked his no-BS approach, as elitist as he is, there’s just something lingering beneath the surface that is off-putting to me.

Lynn: she’s hard to appreciate because she is so dry and seemingly morose – but we still get the sense that she has a very constructive, survivor-type approach to life and it’s hard to disrespect that. By the end, she finally chilled out a bit and it was nice to see – it was a real break-through for me, with respect to her.

Neil: watching him is like having your heart broken time and time again. When you look back at the daydreaming ray of sunshine he once was, seeing his shattered adult form hurts every single time. By far the most dramatic turn of the lot – and one you’d sincerely wish hadn’t.

Nick: my favourite, despite a few unfortunate setbacks in his later years. The guy is focused, intelligent, and humble. He decided who he wants to be, what he wants to do, and he set his sights on it – without any delusions of grandeur, or ego. He’s the one whose brain I’d like to pick the most.

Paul: I was so worried about this poor kid in the first segments that it was nice to see him develop into a peaceful, happy family guy. Lord knows he needed a break…

Peter: drab, but somewhat intriguing. Sadly, we’ll never get to know what’s really ticking behind those inscrutable eyes…

Sue: congenial, pleasant, but not overly interesting. The prototype for a regular life – if such truly exists 😉

Suzy: hard to like, what with her sheltered, snooty attitude – but, by the end, we really get a sense that she’s finally hit her stride and is feeling more and more at ease in her own skin. She is probably the most improved of the bunch and it’s nice to see the inner peace shine out.

Symon: after a false start, where I got a sense he might become a dispirited, detached person, it was nice to see him form a big picture for himself early on and become very “zen” – enjoying life for what it is, and coming to terms with who he is.

Tony: a real prick, in my estimation. I saw a glimmer of hope when he hit 14, and then again a little bit at 28, but he really sticks in my craw. Let’s just say that he’s hard to sympathize with. Having said that, he’s a dramatic enough character that it starts each segment with a figurative punch – appropriately enough.

All in all, I must say that it’s been a remarkable series so far. I can’t rate it super highly because there is too much of stuff I wish had been edited out (all-too-frequent recaps of previous segments, long bits with boring participants, infuriatingly biased questioning, …etc) and because I think that it only offers a skewed glimpse into the participants’ lives.

Still, it’s an awesome premise, and it’s probably as good as this sort of thing is going to get, what with human nature being what it is – after all, the only way to get a real glimpse into people’s lives, unbiased, is to spy on them continuously without their knowledge. And, while this could be done, there’s something completely unethical about this proposition and I hope it will never happen.

It does make me want to revisit ‘The Truman Show’, now, though.

Nota bene: for those who are interested, the whole series is available from the OPL

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