Director Michael Apted can scarcely go wrong with the ongoing series of documentaries instigated by 7 Up (1964), in which a diverse group of seven-year-olds in Britain were asked about their lives and ambitions. Not only is audience interest about the destinies of these individuals seemingly unquenchable; Apted has the luxury, with each new instalment, of a vast archive of footage with which he can freely play.
For many years, 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. But 28 Up (1985), an enormous worldwide success both in cinemas and on television, changed all that. When audiences suddenly followed these meandering, sometimes surprising life paths as if enthralled by a real-life soapie, Apted dropped the sociological pitch.
Life – both in its comforting predictability and its sudden variability – is the true subject of 35 Up, not social class or politics. We encounter 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. But there are also less expected revelations that afford an even keener delight and insight.
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 a number of the hapless participants. Some refuse to appear this time around because of the unwanted publicity it creates; others comply but bitterly speak of the project as a 'curse'. 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 and 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 maybe it's time he recaptured the sociological curiosity that first gave rise to the project.
© Adrian Martin August 1991