Those fab 14 British 7-year-olds return to the screen in 56 Up

Neil Hughes, one of the stars of the landmark documentary 56 Up.

Neil Hughes, one of the stars of the landmark documentary 56 Up.

If you’ve ever been in a classroom situation where the teacher needed to define the term “longitudinal study,” it’s a fair bet that he or she used the so-called Up Series of documentaries as the first example that comes to mind. The films – eight of them released at seven-year intervals so far, including the new 56 Up, currently showing at Upstate Films – have attained iconic status in the documentary field.

They also certainly made Michael Apted’s career, even though he was not the director of the first one, 7 Up (1964). That was Paul Almond, a Canadian, who made the pilot on commission from Granada Television for its World in Action series. But Apted was hired as a researcher and helped choose the 7-year-olds who would participate. From the time of the first sequel, titled 7 Plus Seven (1970), he had taken over the director’s chair.

Apted, now 72, went on to become a prolific director of fiction features, with such titles as Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park and Gorillas in the Mist under his belt, as well as a James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough, and the third installment in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But it’s fair to say that the Up project has remained Apted’s lifelong obsession, and the magnum opus by which his place in film history will be measured.

Many attempts have since been made to replicate the Up format in other countries; but until 7 Up came along and became as dependable a periodic phenomenon as locust emergences, no filmic study of the same group of people over such an ambitious timescale had ever existed. And some of the kids who initially agreed to participate seem to wish that the Up Series never had, either. But most of them, amazingly, keep on coming back, sacrificing their personal privacy in the name of something larger.

Not that the docs, which follow the lives of 14 British children from a variety of social strata from 1964 to the present, really qualify as any sort of rigorously controlled, bias-free scientific experiment. For one thing, the series started with an explicit agenda: to prove that under the UK’s class system, certain children are doomed to fail while others are assured of lifelong material success. For another, the selectivity of the way that the footage is obtained and edited skews the evidence in order to make certain sociological points. As early as the second installment, some of the kids in the group were already complaining that their quotes, taken out of context, made them sound like worse people than they really were.

There’s no denying that a few of those 7-year-olds were repellent right from the get-go – especially the three boys and one girl who came from very privileged families, who came off like smug, superior, callous little carriers of the torch of aristocracy. And Apted himself has admitted that he deliberately collected an excess of footage of one child – Tony, the son of a three-card monte dealer from the East End – in dicey locales, simply because he expected him to end up in prison eventually. Happily, he guessed wrong on that one: Tony didn’t succeed in his dream of becoming a jockey, but has made a good enough living as a cabbie to buy his family a vacation home in Spain.

In fact, the fortunes of these children have failed in a number of cases to follow their predicted arcs. In the most recent installment, where we get to see the tempering effects of late middle age, even some of the upper-class twits of the early episodes seem to be finding ways to make themselves more useful to society. John, the obnoxious little wannabe Tory MP in his three-piece grey wool suit at 7, is still a barrister, but he has found the Bulgarian roots beneath his very proper British exterior and is now dedicating much of his energy to charities in the Old Country. Andrew became a solicitor but learned the true terror of the euphemism “redundancy” when his firm got swallowed up by a multinational corporation; today he identifies with the environmental movement and prides himself on his company’s work on hydrogen fuel cell development.

Conversely, the two boys who initially seemed most destined to fail – Symon and Paul, who are both living in a charity boarding school, essentially an orphanage, when we first meet them – ended up doing all right, having anchored themselves in strong, supportive marriages after some false starts. The saddest stories come from two of the kids who strike us as the most charming freethinkers of 7 Up: East Ender Jackie, who has not held a job in over a decade, after been disabled by rheumatoid arthritis, and Liverpudlian Neil, who has struggled with an unspecified mental illness and was homeless for a number of years.

Neil’s childhood friend Peter, who dropped out of the series after being hounded for some anti-Thatcherite statements that he made in 28 Up, makes a surprise return visit in 56 Up to promote his Americana band, the Good Intentions. Nick, the nuclear physicist who grew up lonely and shy on a sheep farm in the Yorkshire Dales, turns up sporting an American accent after years of teaching at the University of Wisconsin. And Lynn, the children’s librarian from the East End, has recently become a casualty of government budget cuts, introducing a new theme of life in the post-Recession economy that comes up again and again in 56 Up.

To his credit, Apted figured out early on – along with his audience – that these movies aren’t really about fates carved in stone under a rigid caste system. The messages of the Up Series have grown and evolved with its participants, who remain fascinating even though all we catch are fleeting snippets of their complicated lives and characters. It helps if you’ve seen some of the earlier installments and learned to care about the erstwhile children, but it’s not necessary. Each film contains enough footage referencing earlier ages and stages that you’ll get a strong sense of continuity, even if 56 Up is your first toe in these waters.

It’s reasonable to expect that Michael Apted will continue dishing up visits with these “kids” every seven years until he himself is too decrepit to do so, but why wait? Check ‘em out now, while they’re all still able to share their stories with the world. Remember, none of us gets out of this place alive.

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