Seven Years Going on 56: Michael Apted Releases the Latest Documentary in his Film Legacy

DVD Cover

     The Up! films are a documentary series centered on the lives of 14 British youths from different socio-economic backgrounds. Directed by Michael Apted, the first film aired in 1962 when the children were seven. The Apted intones that the films are a projection of the future and that examining the lives of these seven-year-olds will give the viewer a glimpse of the year 2000. It is also loosely tied together by a Jesuit quotation from Ignatius of Loyola who stated, “give me a child at the age of seven and I will give you the man.” This quotation is repeated at the beginning and end of each program and comes under much consideration from the participants themselves as they age and begin to question the purposes of the films. You can find out more about the films here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Series

     In June  Apted released 56 Up! the most recent film in his renowned series. This installment is not yet legally available in the U.S. and if you’re angry about that maybe you should drop a line to David Zwieg, who’s also  full of fire and brimstone at the American exclusion: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/05/why-cant-americans-watch-british-tv-shows-as-soon-as-they-air/257132/Regardless, when have copyright laws ever stopped a 22-year-old with internet access? Therefore, here are my thoughts. 

     This series is one of the intellectu-tainment obsessions of my young life. (You can find all but the most recent film on Netflix). I strongly recommend watching the films. All of them. In rapid succession. Tape your eyes open if you need to. They are probably especially engaging to psychology enthusiasts and sociology buffs. They’ll also be interesting to anyone who enjoys adorable children with haughty British accents and documentaries/other types of mild voyeurism. 

     The subjects include a sampling from several different social backgrounds in England. These include two withdrawn, seemingly sad boys in a children’s home, three giggly girls attending public school in London, a charming country boy, a surly Eastender, three prep school boys with prim socks, etc. As the audience watches them mature into adulthood some of them face money problems, mental illness and adultery; however, they also have their own children, make career transitions and fall in love. Watching the films is like getting to know a friend and then flipping through all of his old photo albums and journals. It is a strangely intimate and compelling experience. For a shortened account of their lives, check out the summaries: http://refreshingnews99.blogspot.com/2012/05/from-seven-to-56-up-story-so-far-13pics.html .

Screen shots of Bruce, Lynn and Neil at the age of seven.

     The interviews in the film outline the subjects’ attitudes towards work, goals, relationships, social climate (a dash of race relations) and any other issues that arise in their lives. Obviously, at the age of seven these thoughts are hardly elegantly-formed, well-educated opinions and are often reiterations of parents’ beliefs or the distracted comments of a child excited to leave for the zoo. Resultantly, the first two films are particularly charming. Hearing children interviewed on such serious topics is entertaining and seeing how they later reflect on those “views” (if you can even call them that at that age) is fascinating. Some take issue with the narrow span of the interviews and the way that Apted later compares a seven-year-old’s “life goals” with those of an adult at twenty eight or thirty five. While I do agree with this criticism, the result is nonetheless an emotionally engaging film. 

     As a young viewer, I was particularly interested in the 21 Up! installment. Perhaps because I related to their challenges and perhaps partly because I was hoping to discover some incredible job prospect that I hadn’t thought of before, watching the fourteen-year-olds of 7 Up Plus 7 morph into young adults was an exciting process. Additionally, for viewers in my age group the film’s subjects are roughly our parents’ ages. Watching the struggles and triumphs of these young people is a reminder that history is still in the making. Many monumental shifts in public policy, race relations, women’s rights, and the institution of marriage and child-rearing have happened over the last fifty years.

     That said, there are many criticisms of the films’ legitimacy, often voiced by the participants, themselves. As they grow older, even beginning at the age of 14, the men and women protest that they are pigeonholed according to the minute details of their lives. They contend that Apted’s analysis of their lives  is limited by the artifice of narrative and audience appeal. They also assert that using class is a limiting and inaccurate way of dividing them and forecasting their futures.

     Despite this, as a viewer I can’t help but see a grey area in between the specific, director-constructed narrative and the participants’ feelings of individuality. While I don’t whole-heartedly agree with the film’s organizational structure, I also don’t whole-heartedly disagree with it. I believe that Nick, an English country boy who moves to America to become a Physics professor, says it best when he examines his time on the show. He contends, while the series may not be an accurate representation of him as a person, of his life and his feelings, it is a representation of a person; of some sort of universal truth. And that, I believe, is what the films are getting at. Revealing the slow shift over time that both leaves us the same person that we were at seven, while simultaneously being wildly, unimaginably different.

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2 thoughts on “Seven Years Going on 56: Michael Apted Releases the Latest Documentary in his Film Legacy

  1. Excellent write up – thanks ! It often gets particularly interesting when the participants discuss their involvement in the series – as you observe. Peter

  2. Yes, especially in the last episode when Susan and Nick are interviewed together about their feelings towards it. Thank goodness no one is scrutinizing my life that much. Thanks for your comment!

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