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Why Michael Apted's '56 Up' Retains a Charm That Will Always Elude Reality TV

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Indiewire January 11, 2013 at 6:27PM

What began as an effort to capture the predictive nature of the British class system has become a half-century cross-section of a cultural curiosity. With the series available on DVD and Netflix Instant Streaming, Apted's work takes on new weight.
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What began as an effort to capture the predictive nature of the British class system has become a half-century cross-section of a cultural curiosity. Twenty children were chosen as subjects for “7 Up,” a Granada Television “World in Action” segment. Now over a dozen years beyond the original program’s intended “glimpse of England in the year 2000,” the series’ periodic revisiting has now reached “56 Up,” the eighth glimpse into the lives of those who formed one of documentary filmmaking’s landmark achievements.

One participant likens the process to a scrapbook. Another draws the parallel to reality TV (of which the "Up" series was a precursor). But everyone knows the overall execution is unequaled in the medium.

A box set of the first six installments is available on DVD and the first seven installments are available on Netflix Instant Streaming. Watching the series now is a curious process. In some ways, you can see Apted’s hand at work, trying to weave together the threads of past episodes, but also trying to set the table for where future stories may go. But there’s a certain level of finality that needs to be achieved with each successive film, just in case circumstances prevent that next one from ever coming.

As the decades have progressed, public recognition has overflown. “56 Up” describes how one participant, Peter Davies, took a 28-year hiatus from the series after comments he made about the Margaret Thatcher government became fodder for editorials across the country. Neil Hughes describes in various installments how viewers have reached out to him with commiseration and aid after the series documented his struggles with finding a stable home and employment. Tony Walker has fully embraced social media (complete with a website offering his commentary on the films’ history) as a new way to interact with new fans of the series and those who may have grown up concurrent with him.

Of course, these individuals don’t live in isolation. In a phone interview from London, Walker spoke about how he’s frequently seen other members of the group in and around the city. (As so much of his story has been intertwined with his job as a London cab driver, it seemed only fitting that Walker spoke with us in between picking up passengers.) “John Brisby, I saw at Heathrow Airport only three months ago. He was waiting in line for a fare and he had just come back from Bulgaria. It was me who picked him up, believe it or not! Even the cameraman, George Jesse Turner, when I went to New York for the first time, I was on the same flight,” Walker said. “It’s a very coincidental world that I live in, that there are these people on the streets in front of me. It’s bizarre, really.”

Over time, the documentarian has become an invisible subject himself, with changes marked by shifts in tone of voice and tiny cracks in the facade of objectivity. It’s not often that we hear the participants address Apted directly. But when they do, it’s a reminder that there is a filmmaking glue that holds the goings-on together. As the stories from decade to decade stack on each other, it’s the consistency of the crew that helps maintain some continuity. “For the last 28 years, we’ve had the same crew, right from the top to the bottom,” Walker said.

At the head of that is Apted, whose relationship with his subjects has sometimes produced some on-camera friction (“21 Up” features a contentious discussion with the Jackie/Sue/Lynn trio about marrying early), but has also grown beyond a simple one-week check-in three times every two decades. “There’s only one word that everyone really associates with Michael: trust. He knows what responsibility he does carry with the subjects. I can only speak on my behalf, but with Michael, I trust him implicitly,” Walker stated.

Apted’s ability to arrive at life-checkpoint confessions or realizations comes from the double-edged sword of familiarity. When Apted asks participants one by one if they have dreams, it’s not always at a point in the conversation where pride would be easy to manage. When he asks about regret, there’s sometimes a sense that he knows what answer might be coming.

In a curious way, these films function as memories do, using significant markers as a way to build pathways to important events in the past. Suzy Lusk remarks in “56 Up” how the “odd comment” can become a significant part of that episode’s relative sliver of time. With repetition, even the most trivial moments, actions or ideas can become defining. Brisby’s honest-but-precocious remark about newspaper reading habits as a seven-year-old has since become the first introductory detail revealed in each successive installment. 

There are reminders that this is not designed to be a fly-on-the-wall examination of daily life. In a way, they make the unexpected moments all the more obvious, when an ironing board collapses, a small child takes a tumble while cavorting around the backyard or, as memorably happens in “14 Up,” Lusk’s family dog tracks down and destroys a rabbit just at the top of the frame. It’s a reminder that, although pivotal shocking moments are an inevitable part of life, most unseen changes are gradual and cumulative.

In some ways, the series forces you to become a better observer. In various episodes, the connections between what a participant said in a previous installment will be charted through a series of flashbacks. But there’s a joy in making connections that aren’t so explicit. There’s Symon Basterfield getting to live out his own teenage dream of going to a museum by taking his own child. A scene of a young Walker getting an acting lesson references “holidays in Spain,” only to show in a later film him owning a vacation home there himself. Sue Davis’ talks of a missed opportunity at a performing career return less than a decade later with a sweet barroom karaoke performance of The Carpenters’ “Superstar,” all done in front of her future fiancé. When seven-year-old Paul Kligerman mentions that he doesn’t want to have to eat greens that his future wife would force on him, the only food visible at a family dinner decades later are slabs of barbecued meat.

This wouldn’t necessarily seem like the kind of venture that would attract fans. But aside from the periodic recognition that Walker gets through his job as a cabbie, he’s heard of a number of families that have used the series as a family bonding exercise. “People from all around the world, through Facebook, Twitter and email, they say that they’ve watched the beginning from ‘7 Up’ through the rest of the box set. They’ve encapsulated all these films in a week. It’s been popcorn and everything in the front room of the house. And it’s captured the children’s imagination in the school, too,” Walker said.

There are three activities from the original “World in Action” broadcast that return in all iterations. The opening introduction of the group as a whole takes place at a zoo, as the children gaze at a polar bear exhibit with varying levels of wonder, awe and fear. A party, complete with cupcakes, balloons and the Monotones’ “What Would I Do?” leads to a smattering of smiles amidst other confused reactions. But it’s the closing trip to an “adventure playground” that provides the opportunity to single out each participant in a freewheeling environment. Our announcer explains that this is a land of contentment where the kids can “do just what they like.” It’s the intervening, half-century search and obtaining of that same kind of happiness that makes the Up series worth revisiting.

Through February 2013, Indiewire is taking a closer look at how the over-60 audience is served by the movies made for them as well as profiling the actors and filmmakers who are their peers. It's part of a partnership with Heineken, which is sponsoring the "Heineken 60+ Challenge" that reaches out to the creative community to film, photograph or write their observations on the lifestyles and preferences of the 60+ age group. The goal is to help Heineken create innovative products to suit this golden
generation.

This article is related to: Television, Michael Apted, Heineken 60+ Challenge