Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Movie Log: Seven Up!/7 Plus Seven/21 Up/28 Up

I've heard about Michael Apted's "Up" series of British TV documentaries for years, and finally decided to start at the beginning.

So The Wife and I watched Seven Up! and 7 Plus Seven -- each is a bit less than an hour, being originally Granada TV shows in 1964 and 1971 -- very early in the new year. And then we saw 21 Up on the 10th, and then 28 Up on the 18th. (If I keep dawdling about writing up the movies I've seen, I'll make it to the end of the series before publishing a word.)

This is a documentary series, started in 1963 by Granada in the UK. In the original series, a stentorian announcer declaimed "give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man" and other pseudo-profundities as a representative cross-section of British seven-year-olds (fourteen of them) were quizzed about their lives and expectations and dreams. The kids were clearly chosen to represent specific ideas about the British body politic (the Rich Girl, the Poor Girls, the Eastender, the Prep-School Boys, the Orphanage Boys) and in particular to delineate the class system, but the kids all rose above their stereotyping to become real people in front of the cameras. Since then, one of the young researchers on the original show, Michael Apted, has gone back to reinterview as many of the subjects as would talk to him every seven years since then: at age 14 in 1970, 21 in 1977, 28 in 1984, 35 in 1991, 42 in 1998, and 49 in 2005.

Apted is quite present in the documentaries, often annoyingly so -- he's compelled to keep quizzing the subjects on how horrible the class system is until (he hopes) finally they all break down and walk arm and arm with him into the New Socialized World of the Future. But as the subjects get older, they're calling him on it more and more, demanding to know why he keeps asking if they think they've had the same opportunities as other people. (On the other hand, following some references in these films led me to do some reading on the various UK school systems of the past century, which were all impressively tightly tracked and seemingly designed to keep as many people as possible from learning much of anything.)

I've only hit 28 Up so far, so the story is only up to the early '80s, and the subjects still have a lot of living to do. But watching their lives is already an astoundingly intimate and fascinating process -- one of the posh seven-year-old boys looked remarkably like my younger son, and these are movies that very quickly lead viewers to think about their own lives and choices.

And the very fact of the series, the fact that it's been done at all -- let alone done well and carefully -- is immense. Just tracking the same people and interviewing them every seven years -- ordinary people, with lives like our own -- makes this a fascinating series of movies.

On the one hand, I'm sorry that I waited so long to discover these. But, on the other, I still have three more movies to see to bring these people up to the current day -- and then it'll be 2012 until the next one.


Becs said...

I wonder how much just being observed like this has impacted the subjects' lives.

I think I saw up to the time when they were all in their late 20s and I felt particularly sorry for the kid who ended up homeless - I think schizophrenic? - and alienated.

Michael A. Burstein said...

I've heard about these and been wanting to see them for a long time. It's just been a question of finding the time to do so.

Anonymous said...

It's an amazingly good project. I've seen them all. Some of the toffs dropped out early -- understandably. I admire Apted's work and the way it revealed -- I speak as a conservative buffer -- the rotten British class system.

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