The Up Series
This famous series of British television documentaries began with 7 Up (Paul Almond, 1964) and has continued every 7 years to 63 Up (2019) – that’s 8 instalments in the hands of well-known director Michael Apted, who died in 2021. Will the project proceed further without him? The answer to that is as yet unknown.
The premise: a diverse group of 7-year-olds were asked about their lives and ambitions. Not only is audience interest about the destinies of these individuals seemingly unquenchable; Apted also has the luxury, with each new instalment, of a vast archive of footage with which he can freely play. He could hardly go wrong with this material. But does he really make the most of its possibilities?
For many years (especially during the ‘70s), the Up series was known mainly to university students as a veritable textbook on the opportunities and obstacles presented to people at different levels of society. It appeared regularly (and was sometimes slotted lazily, as I can attest) in sociology and media studies curricula.
28 Up (1984), however, became an enormous worldwide success both in cinemas and on television; it also spawned a staggering number of similar projects in many countries. (In Australia, for instance, Gillian Armstrong embarked on an all-female variation running from Smokes and Lollies  to Love, Lust & Lies .)
Suddenly, mass audiences were following the meandering, sometimes surprising life-paths of the original Up group, enthralled by a real-life soap opera. Under the shrewd guidance of Apted, the series accordingly became less analytical, more whimsical. The sociological pitch was gradually dropped.
Life Itself – both in its comforting predictability and its sudden variability – is the true subject of 35 Up (1991), not social status or politics (despite Apted’s assertions about wishing to nail ‘class privilege’ and whatnot). We encounter, once again, the characters we have come to hate or love, and find out if we have guessed the next stage of their fate correctly.
There’s a warm glow awaiting those viewers who want to see the supposedly normal life cycle of the supposedly average man and woman affirmed in all its bittersweet ordinariness – school, marriage, job, home, family. The Book of Life! But there are also less expected revelations that afford an even keener insight and delight.
Who could have guessed, for instance, that Tony, after half a lifetime dallying with horse riding, gambling and acting, would settle into a niche as cab-driving family man? Or that Neil, the sombre drop-out who casts a nihilistic shadow over the whole series, would fall into amateur theatre and a modicum of social stability?
In an almost sadistically fascinating way, we see that the series has taken its toll on several of the hapless participants. Some refuse to appear in 35 Up because of the unwanted publicity it creates; others comply but bitterly speak of the project as a “curse”. How could the series not be, inevitably, vampiric – like any and every film/video project that tracks some people through successive years? [Postscript 2023: Richard Linklater has hooked his career to this species of vampirism not once but twice: in Boyhood (2014) and the ongoing Merrily We Roll Along project, adapted from Stephen Sondheim and slated for 2040 release!]
The thought of coming up for grand review every seven years seems to either scare the film’s subjects into model behaviour, or hasten their worst imagined fates: divorce, loneliness, unfulfillment, and the deaths of those most cherished.
35 Up is never boring, but it is occasionally very annoying. Apted’s approach is too often cosy and superficial. It takes more than a brief loungeroom chat plus a stroll with the family dog to plumb the depths of a person’s life. But Apted clearly does not want to delve too deeply; he’s happy to trace only the most obvious biographical milestones.
There is a dimension sorely missing from 35 Up – people's beliefs, values and passions, their opinions about the world around them. Apted continues to weave an engaging mosaic of human life; but one wishes he would he recapture the sociological curiosity that first gave rise to the project.
With each new instalment of the Up series, the footage of the original, black and white television program seems quainter and more naive. Over shots of kids tearing around an adventure playground, a chummy narrator’s voice intones the thesis of the experiment: to see whether a bunch of children, gathered from diverse backgrounds, will turn out exactly as their social conditioning and opportunities decree.
The experiment is curious and inherently fascinating – and has itself become a cultural phenomenon. By the time of 42 Up (1998), Apted, while never seen on camera, has become as much a character as those he mercilessly records through time.
The reason the series has become as riveting as any long-running melodrama is because of the tension between a social determinist thesis – in some cases, sadly proven beyond doubt – and the evidence that chance, choice, reckless adventure and sudden change can take individuals down surprising trajectories.
It is those surprising moments that make 42 Up bearable – particularly the journey of Neil, from homelessness and depression to a place on a city council. He’s still living on welfare, but his vastly improved demeanour and confidence are an emblem of hope. Apted produces an ace from his sleeve when he reveals to us, late in the film, how the series itself has led to an important friendship for Neil.
If only all the people covered by this project were as interesting. Many seem to be greeting the onset of middle age as a death sentence – causing one to wonder about the dire tedium awaiting us in 84 Up. There are occasional flashes of self-insight, and poignant glimpses of everyday happiness or trouble – but much of this long-winded chronicle has simply become bland and unrevealing.
Apted’s approach is partly to blame for this. His questions to the participants listlessly range over the usual touchstones – marriage & divorce, career & retirement, family, security, contentment. We are frustratingly held at a distance from the intimacies of these lives.
Apted is ultimately, like a tourist who breezes in once every seven years and surveys the most obvious and photogenic attractions – and then breezes out, leaving himself and us not much wiser.
© Adrian Martin August 1991 / August 1993 / July 1999 (updated August 2023)