James reviews this week’s release from Network of the complete collection of Michael Apted’s ground-breaking documentary series.
Although today acclaimed as one of the finest documentary series ever made, Michael Apted’s Up series came about largely by accident. The original Seven Up!, first broadcast in 1964, was intended to be a one-off episode of Granada’s World in Action strand, made by Paul Almond with a young Apted working as chief researcher. The programme took the form of a string of interviews with a collection of seven-year-olds who came from a range of social backgrounds, with the intention of illustrating the idea that their future lives were already pre-determined even at that early age, depending on the class in which they were growing up and the consequent range of opportunities which were open to them. The Jesuit expression “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” was used as the foundation, taken to refer to not only the personalities but also the probable fates of the children, who would be, as the narrator intoned solemnly, the “shop steward and the executives of the year 2000.”
The programme, even viewed today, does paint a bleak picture. Ambitions are sharply divided; Lynn, one of a trio of East End girls interviewed, has no greater aims than to work in Woolworths, while Suzy, who is being privately educated, is already looking forward to the day she can hire a nanny to look after her own children. It would have been very difficult to envisage that, for example, Tony, another East End lad who has his sights firmly and solely set on being a jockey, will ever know the same kind of life as Bruce, a rather quiet boy growing up in at an extremely exclusive boarding school. Sharp contrasts are drawn: John, Charles and Andrew, all at the same public school, reel off the secondary schools and universities they are going to attend while Neil, from a middle-class suburb of Liverpool, says he doesn’t think he needs to go to university to be either an astronaut or a coach driver and Paul, living in a children’s home, asks heart-breakingly “What does university mean?” Even the fact that much of what the children say is inevitably highly amusing (“I’ve got a girlfriend,” says Andrew, “but I don’t think much of her”) adds a poignancy to the film’s tone; seeing the bright, cherubic faces with their optimistic outlooks, unknowingly already having had their own graves dug, is a real downer as well as making for a damning indictment of Britain’s class system at the time.
It was also, as the subsequent programmes have revealed, somewhat unfair. While it’s true that many of those who took part did indeed follow the paths laid out for them in that first show, many managed to break away, for better or worse, some making more of their circumstances than Seven Up’s pessimistic outlook could ever have believed possible. When it became clear that the “Up Series,” as it is now somewhat awkwardly termed, was going to become a seven-year event, it very quickly changed its focus, as the interviewees evolved from representative stereotypes to become individuals each with a unique story to tell. Even 7 Plus Seven, which is obviously the closest in tone to the original and is also, from the point of view of insight, the least interesting, realises that the aim of the show is subtly shifting. It’s left to John (who, with Yorkshire man Nick and Lynn’s friend Jackie, is by far the most perceptive about the nature of the whole project) to observe that the pigeon-holing is unfair, that he is no more typical of a public school boy than Tony is necessarily of a working class lad. As the latter says in 28 Up, “Judge people on who they are, not what they are.”
So it is that, while John and his friend Andrew do indeed go onto Oxbridge and enter the law firm, their friend Charles fails to get in, going to Durham instead and ends up working not at the bar but as a television producer (and, ironically, refusing to participate in later episodes.) Meanwhile Nick, the sole pupil of his local village school seemingly fated to work on his father’s farm in Seven Up!, goes on to read Physics at Oxford and become a hugely successful professor in the States, while Bruce, again after attending Oxford, eschews what were no doubt highly lucrative jobs to work in an inner-city school teaching maths to the children of immigrants. It’s very true that some had more opportunity to choose the kind of life they led, but even those whose options appeared more limited sometimes managed to break away – the one who most impresses in this regard is Tony, who failed to make it as a jockey but, instead of losing his way amongst the gangsters he occasionally rubbed shoulders with in his youth, knuckled down, worked hard and became a London cabbie and occasional film extra (he claims to have worked with Steven Spielberg, although his imdb entry doesn’t list which film). While there are other aspects to his life which are less than laudable – he has at least one affair which puts a strain on his marriage to the long-suffering Debbie – the way he fights back from repeated disappointments is extremely admirable, and cocks a snook at the gloomy hypothesis of the first programme. Admittedly these examples are the exceptions which prove the rule followed by many of the other interviewees, but they do serve as stark reminders that the black-and-white view of Seven Up! (no pun intended) was somewhat simplistic.
However, the other meaning of “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” regarding the children’s personalities, does prove to be largely true. In Seven Up! Bruce comes across as rather shy and sad (it’s easy to imagine that the nation’s heart broke when he said “My heart’s desire is to see my daddy, who lives six thousand miles away”) and continues to be so throughout most of the programmes. He doesn’t get married until the age of 40, and as late as 35 Up it seems that domestic bliss is going to elude him to some extent because of his introverted personality. Even more extreme is Paul, another hugely sympathetic character, whose life in the children’s home seemed to remove completely his own self-esteem, leading to a man constantly putting himself down and believing that only the worst can happen. Even though he was lucky enough to meet his much more forthright wife Susan by 21 Up, who plainly adores him, he still struggles through most of the films with intense insecurity about himself; even by the last programme 49 Up he is very much down on himself (much to Susan’s frustration) and one can’t help wondering, without of course knowing the full story, how much the life in the children’s home, and subsequent awkward relationship with his father and new step-mother, affected him. The other boy who was with him at the time, Simon, is another who seems at times unable to break completely from the mentality he shows at 7, and again it’s only by 49 Up that he begins to demonstrate real ambition, talking about going back to school and trying to find a new path.
That said, while it’s true that most of the children show the personalities their adult selves will eventually have, there is one very notable exception. The seven-year-old Neil is bright and bubbly, with a keen imagination and a carefree, outgoing attitude. By fourteen, however, he has become far more subdued, speaking about the pressures of keeping up with the brightest in his school, and by the time he’s in his early twenties he has, seemingly disappointed at rejection from Oxford, dropped out of university altogether and is found living in a squat in London, taking odd jobs on building sites and seemingly disenchanted with life. Things are even worse in 28 Up, and it’s difficult to believe that the introspective, isolated, homeless man aimlessly roaming around Britain and, at the time of the film, living in a caravan in the wilds of Scotland, is the same who in the first film was happily talking about his plans to be either an astronaut or, failing that, coach driver. Neil’s intensely sad story was one of the main things which caught the attention of viewers and put the Up series firmly on the map, and so it’s only fitting that eventually he has found some kind of redemption – by 49 Up he is working as a Lib Dem councillor in Cumbria, having discovered his place in the world, even if it is very far removed from that of that little boy playing at sword fighting on the streets of Liverpool.
It’s not particularly true in Neil’s case, but one of the things in which the series as a whole does delight is irony – it loves showing an earlier interview and then jumping forward, such as, to take a random example, Simon saying at 21 he would go mad if he was to stay at his present job before we flash forward and find him not only still there are 28, but saying he has no desire to leave. This is a theme the films repeat over and over again, using the technique as a short-hand way of illustrating how people have changed over the seven-year periods. While many don’t progress all that much between individual episodes, there are occasionally startling shifts, perhaps most notably that of Suzy. At 21 she is shown as a diffident, rather surly chain-smoking girl who left her privileged schooling at sixteen and moved to Paris as an act of rebellion and who claims in her interview she’s deeply cynical about marriage (and everything else it seems) and doesn’t like babies. Guess what, seven years later we find her a happy, smiling jolly person living in domestic bliss with hubby Rupert and cradling her second child. This is a happy example; others, such as those showing happy marriages dissolving, are less so. This is one of the chief reasons why the programmes work; just as a parent doesn’t notice the day-to-day changes in a child as they grow until someone who hasn’t seen them for a long while points out how much taller said child is now, so the films, in checking in after lengthy periods away, can gain insight into the changes the interviewees have gone through that they don’t necessarily see themselves.
Which, unsurprisingly, is not always welcomed by those involved. The most striking thing about the most recent episode 49 Up is how Apted almost for the first time moves metaphorically in front of the camera, asking directly how being in the films has affected the participants. Unsurprisingly, he gets a very mixed reaction. While Susan believes it has been nothing but positive for husband Paul and has helped keep them together, many others are far less happy about it. Suzy says that it digs up all sorts of turmoil she could do without and Nick’s wife was so unhappy at her portrayal that she refused to appear again, while for others there have been more practical consequences – for example, Tony’s wife Debbie says that their daughter couldn’t go to school after a previous programme had been shown because of the revelations of her father’s infidelity. Perhaps the most infamous example of an interviewee suffering from his appearance came a couple of episodes earlier; Neil’s childhood friend Peter lost his job following a tabloid campaign after he railed against the Thatcher government in 28 Up and hasn’t had anything to do with the series since. in 49 Up one of the most telling reactions comes from Jackie, who gets angry with Apted, recalling intensely personal questions he asked as far back as 21 Up in which he questioned her decision to marry so early, and now accuses him of editorialising. At the risk of doing exactly what she claims all viewers do in drawing erroneous conclusions, there is a suspicion at least in part that in her case there’s a frustration that the film charts her own ups and downs quite as closely as it does, recalling unhappy times she’d much rather forget.
But does she have a point? How much editorialising does go on, and do the films show the full picture? As Neil says in an interview with DVD Times to commemorate this set’s release the films capture people at very specific points in their life – in his words, “come back a week before or later and things might be very different.” However, because of the film’s structure there is a need to generalise, to believe that the people we are seeing and their situations reflects the entirety of their past seven years, which of course it can never do. This is what raises Jackie’s ire, as well as her belief that Apted chooses to focus on the negative too much of the time. Very occasionally she does have a point – Paul’s slots almost always focus on his lack of self-confidence, Nick’s on the fact he is living thousands of miles away from his family and so on – but, given the relatively short amount of screentime each of the interviewees can have, even in the lengthier programmes, it’s still remarkable how three-dimensional a picture Apted manages to paint of each of them. There’s the odd moment where he is deliberately provocative – one of the most surprising moments in any of the films is when he asks Tony what it’s like to have failed at nearly everything he’s done – in his search for “the story” but, without knowing either the full story or what material he chooses to leave on the cutting room floor, these films still seem to be balanced in their portraits, even if those little ironies mentioned above are often a not always subtle form of commentary. One can only conclude that those who have returned seven times feel that the Up films are fair to them – as Apted says in one of the featurettes on this set, he has to keep them happy so they continue to join in (although he adds ruefully “Not all of them like me” – it’s easy to hazard a guess at who he is referring to). Even so, the films are invasive, often painfully so, which inevitably is one of the things that make them so compelling: unlike the so-called reality genre which is usually anything but, this is real life in all its mundane glory. In 49 Up John wonders whether the film has any social worth greater than that offered by the likes of Big Brother but to even mention the two in the same breath is enough to make one blanch. These are real people, joined by nothing more than their part in the show, but who together present an endlessly rich and rewarding tapestry of life in the last fifty years, collectively offering a meditation on the human condition which is utterly absorbing. I’m not sure I could ever have accepted what John so eloquently describes as “the little pill of poison” which each of them is presented with every seven years but one has to be extremely grateful that so many have chosen to continue taking it.
All seven films so far are presented for the first time on Region Two in this six-disc set. The first disc holds Seven Up! and the two featurettes, the next 7 Plus Seven and 21 Up, with each subsequent film getting its own DVD. The layout is rather spartan; each disc has a static menu with several faces from the programme, with the options to either Play or, where appropriate, select an extra. Although all the films are split into chapters, it’s only 28 Up and later films which have a submenu for them which details who appears where. Neither the films nor the extras are subtitled.
As for the AV, no work appears to have been down in cleaning up or restoring the episodes. As such the Video for the earlier episodes is rather poor, very grainy with lots of blemishes on the prints. Even the later episodes suffer from a generally faded and soft look, not helped by what is an extremely low bitrate; all the episodes clock in with a constant rate well under 1Mbps so that, while some leeway must be allowed in regards to the age of much of the material, the picture is still far poorer than it need be, resulting in a picture full of compression artefacts that you don’t want to examine too closely. The Audio too is fairly muffled and crackly for the older episodes, although at least this is a bit more bearable given the context. However, in 28 Up there appear to be some lip-synching problems during Nick’s section, although why this should be as the rest of the film seems fine I don’t know.
Although this set marks the complete series’s debut on Region Two, the films were released collectively a few years ago for Region One (see Mike’s review of the 49 Up disc here) but neither the Michael Apted commentary for 42 Up nor his interview with Roger Ebert on 49 Up have made it across the Atlantic. However, there is a new, two-part interview with him, the first part of which, Michael Apted at Granada (21:55), has the director describing his early career path, going from working on local news programmes through to stints on Coronation Street and on to directing original dramas and comedies. The second, It Was Only Ever Going To Be One Film… (13:35) focuses on his opinions on the series and his relationship with the interviewees. The brief running time obviously doesn’t compensate for the lack of a commentary from him, but it’s still an interesting, worthwhile feature.
There is a commentary on 28 Up the episode which in the views of those involved really brought the series to national and international prominence for the first time. Producer Claire Lewis, film editor Kim Horton and cameraman Jesse Turner, all of whom have worked on the films since that episode, remember its filming and talk about the series in general; like Apted they make for thoughtful, enlightening company. However, the execution of the track on the DVD is a little tiresome. There are some parts of the film in which they do not commentate (the most obvious, unsurprisingly, being over Peter’s segment.) As a consequence, should you select to listen to the commentary from its own submenu, after each interviewee’s section is over you are dragged back to the menu and have to manually select the next segment. If, on the other hand, you try and avoid this and cycle through the audio tracks while just watching the show, those segments in which there is no commentary are completely silent, rather than reverting to the film’s own soundtrack. It’s an understandable but extremely clumsy way of doing things.
The low quality of the visual transfer and small number of extras (albeit of a high quality) does not manage to dim what is an utterly absorbing collection of films. Following the interviewees through their lives is a hugely rewarding and revealing journey, one which, if you’re like me and hadn’t visited the series before, I can only urge you to take.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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