Every seven years, since 1964, British TV viewers have been treated to a phenomenon: an insightful, humorous, sobering, life-affirming series of shows, the first of which focused on a group of 7-year-old kids talking about themselves, their friends, their relatives, the world. Canadian director Paul Almond made the original film, titled “Seven-Up.” But every seven years since then, with cameras and questions aimed at most members of that same groups of kids, who have now grown up to be 56, the series (“14 Up,” “21 Up,” etc.) has carried on under the watch of British director Michael Apted.
In between these episodes, all of which are shown on TV in Britain and in theaters in the U.S., Apted has directed, among many others, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Gorillas in the Mist,” and even a James Bond entry, “The World Is not Enough.” But it’s for his “Up” movies that he’s best known.
These are talking heads films, where the man asking questions (Apted, who has a remarkably deep and soothing voice) is never seen, and the subjects sit or stand there, sometimes totally at ease, sometimes incredibly uncomfortable, literally growing up, or maybe evolving is a better word, on camera.
The questions, along with the subjects, have gone through some major changes. In the first one, young Nick is asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?” His answer is immediate: “I don’t answer questions like that.” In the newest film, Apted asks one of his people, “Do you have enough money?” And to another, queries, “Are you concerned about aging?”
These days, no one minds answering the questions. They know Apted so well, they’ve become so comfortable around him, no matter how probing or intrusive the question might be, they just let it all hang out. Yet at the same time, they also give unprovoked comments about the series, about its faults and shortcomings, about the fact that it doesn’t provide a big enough picture, only little snippets of their lives.
A man named John labels the show “a complete fraud” because so much of their lives is left out. But that’s the whole point of the endeavor. It’s not that any one of these people or their stories is fascinating. It’s that we’re getting brief, intimate looks into all of these very different lives. These, in turn, provide a broad, multi-faceted picture of a half-century of what it’s like to be British.
Apted generously tosses in footage from earlier episodes, and has some great motifs going.
Whenever we see the three friends Lynn, Sue, and Jackie, at different ages, they’re always sitting next to each other on a couch. Or there’s Paul who, over the years, offers up his ever-changing thoughts about marriage and his ongoing lack of self-confidence. Neil was a happy 7-year-old, was homeless by 28, went through all kinds of emotional troubles, and is now in small-town politics. Peter quit the show after “28 Up,” but has now returned to the fold, likely because he thinks it’s a good way to get publicity for his band.
One of the most moving aspects is that we get to look back to when these folks were just kids, talking about their futures, then get to see them now, talking about their pasts, as well as what still might come. In the history of TV programming this will go down as the first true reality series.
Ed Symkus covers movies for GateHouse Media.
Directed by Michael Apted
With lots of 56-year-old British people
Movie review: ‘56 Up’ an engaging reality series