56 Up

56 UpSynopsis: 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 56 more life-changing decisions and surprising developments are revealed.

An extraordinary 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.”

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56 Up 7.5

eyelights: the participation of most of the original kids.
eyesores: Peter’s shameless motivations for returning.

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”

When my girlfriend and I first watched the BBC documentary ‘7 Up‘, we couldn’t foresee that it would have the impact that it did. A compelling watch, for all its flaws, we gobbled up each subsequent follow-up and finished the series in record time – despite each film’s growing length. We couldn’t wait to see where the participants would be next.

When I spoke about it to one of my best friends, he seemed mildly intrigued. We weren’t finished yet, but I lent him the ones we had already watched. In no time flat, he too got hooked. By the time he was done, which was not long at all, the seventh installment was released. We made a point of making an evening of it and watching ’49 Up’ together.

It was a lot of fun. We discussed each participant, the value of the series and its approach over dinner. It even branched out into how this reflected on our lives – as any self-respecting introspectives would. By the end, we looked forward to the next part of this ever-developing human drama and socio-political television experiment.

We’d have to wait patiently, as many years were to pass before the participants would reconnect with the documentary crew to update everyone on the state of their lives at the now mature age of 56. By then, we had recruited another of my best friends, who had also watched the series and wanted to see where it led. We eagerly watched the years roll by.

Thankfully, it wasn’t too long and, finally, ’56 Up’ was released on DVD. By that point, I had purchased the whole ‘Up Series’ boxed set, but had not seen ’56 Up’ anywhere in my neck of the woods. I had to wait until I made it at the top of my local library’s waiting list to get it. And then we had to wait until the four of us could free up at the same time to watch it.

On February 15, 2014, we were able to make it work. We got together late in the afternoon, reminisced a little bit, trying to recall past episodes, before eventually getting started. We viewed this ground-breaking 140-minute documentary, attention fully drawn. With no breaks, barely any chatter, and no distractions, we watched the participants’ lives unfold before our eyes.

I can’t discuss the content without ruining the show, obviously. Each participant is shown sequentially, via archival footage (to jog the viewers’ memories) and then with respect to different aspect of their lives, including career, family and relationships. All told, they get approximately 10-12 minutes of screen time each, including the recaps – so it’s not much to go on.

And that’s part of the problem with the series: it’s merely a quick overview of their lives -an update, really- and not an in-depth look; we get a sense of the people, but that’s about it. Nick himself commented on this matter by saying that the series is not truly about them, really, but is about people in general. Leave it to the most grounded of the lot to cut to the chase.

Still, at this point, we’re endlessly curious to see where their lives will go. We want to check in much in the manner that one has coffee with old school chums once every so many year, to get a sense of how things are. We’ll never really know what’s happening because we’ve missed too many details, but we are brought up to speed (in as much as they allow you to).

The four of us ended up having dinner together and discussing the film, and our impressions of what’s going on in every participant’s life. For some, it was disappointing to see that their adult lives have all become so mundane. For others, it was exactly as could be expected, given the context and the amount of time that was allotted to each individual. We also discussed some of the big surprises.

For my part, I continue to dislike director Michael Apted’s biased interview questions. For instance, he asked Neil about the “failure” of his relationships, continuing his ruthless and judgemental prying into his life. With Tony, however, he tip-toed around by saying that people might think that he’s racist, not actually labeling him as such. Why the different approaches?

One thing seems to have changed for me, and it’s the fact that Apted is now referred to in the documentary. Whereas the director was never part of the picture in the past, now some of the participants sometimes talk to him, and address him by name – which was weird given that we never actually see him. This makes the proceedings even more subjective, which I dislike.

But I still enjoy this documentary series. In particular, I like it because it has given us something to bond over, and to look forward to as a group – much like people used to huddle next to the radio to hear the next installment of their favourite serials. Granted, it’s an activity that will be spread over many years now, limiting the bonding experience, but it’s still something we can call our own.

I especially enjoy the conversations that come of this. This time, The Horrible Dr. B (you may recall him from our recent James Bond film reviews) brought forth a few questions for everyone. We ended up reflecting on our own lives from ages seven to now (in seven year intervals, of course), and speculated on what life will be like for each of us at 56. It was enlightening and fascinating stuff.

All told, watching ’56 Up’ was a terrific experience. But most of the credit has to go to the company more so than to the filmmakers. While I would have found the film interesting all by my lonesome, it was made that much more significant because it’s now become a touchstone for a few of us, as we reflect upon the participants’ lives and our own. ’63 Up’ cannot come soon enough.

Post scriptum: In recent years, other countries have produced similar documentary series. If ever they are made available with English and/or French subtitles, I suspect that some of us will make a point of checking those out too.

Date of Viewing: February 15, 2014

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