by Del Harvey
Michael Apted’s latest entry in this 35-year-old series is as enthralling and captivating as the original.
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In the seventh installment of this documentary series from Britain director Michael Apted has brought us up to date with the seven children he selected for a segment of the BBC television program World In Action back in 1964. Apted took over directing duties from Paul Almond, the original director of the series, and has been revisiting his subjects every seven years, since the popularity of the original, titled 7 Up, was evident with a dramatically large viewer response. Michael Apted is a noted commercial director whose credits include the latest James Bond thriller The World Is Not Enough, Nell, Gorillas In The Mist and Coal Miner’s Daughter.
The first impression I had was of the powerful nature of the film documentary. This series has been using the concept so often used (and more often sensationalized) by contemporary American television programs such as A&E’s Biography, Fox’s COPS, Springer and MTV’s Real World. The “Up” series includes the original narrator’s voice entoning “This has been a glimpse of Britain’s future,” and “Give me the child until he is 7, and I will show you the man.” The sheer power of human drama is so overwhelmingly evident in this documentary series that it promotes some viewers to tears. 42 Up proves that the series retains its strength and continues to hold the viewers’ interest even after 35 years. This in itself is amazing for any film franchise.
The “characters” in this film are a cross-section of British society, from orphans to children of the higher class. And the program was initially concieved with the intent of determining to what extent British society is class-driven. By the time the subjects have reached the age of 42 Up, that question is fairly well answered. The subject’s lives are revealed in a Q&A format, with Apted as interviewer. This is extremely effective since Apted has been with the program since 1964, and not only are all of the subjects quite familiar with him by now, but most seem willing to open up to him.
They are all vastly different human beings, with varied backgrounds and life experiences. And yet there is something about each of them which is at once similar and familiar. My girlfriend attributes this to a certain courage that each of these people share in the act of revealing themselves on camera. I would have to agree, but wonder if there is something more which may be tied into the fact that each of these people are simply involved in such an endeavor. Several of them, Lynn the librarian and Bruce the schoolteacher, point out that every seven years they’re re-introduced to their own lives and the lives of the other persons involved in the project, which is not at all that different from a family reunion of sorts. This poignancy is emphasized in a friendship that has been struck with the fair-weathered educator Bruce and the once-homeless Neil, who now spends his time working as a council member for the Liberal Democratic party, a far cry from the last time we visited him (in 35 Up Neil was living a grim existence in a travel trailer in the farthest reaches of Scotland).
From my perspective, Nick, the farmboy who has evolved into a fusion scientist and educator, shares similar traits with Bruce (the afore-mentioned teacher) and Paul, an orphan who now lives in Australia with his wife and two children. All three of these men take a fairly honest view of their lives, which are quite different in many respects. Nick comes from a small farming community where he and his young brothers were the only children and were given their studies in a schoolhouse not much bigger than a shed. Bruce comes from an upper-class background but has dedicated his life to teaching and helping others, bears regret for “things he might have missed” due to his self-proclaimed “reserve.” Paul and his wife have provided for their children but live on the edge of financial troubles, even though their outlook is positive and they seem well-adjusted and believe in themselves and their future.
Then there are three women profiled in 42 Up whose friendship remains intact after 35 years—Jackie, Lynn, and Sue. Lynn’s marriage at an early age remains intact, and her children seem bright and respectful. She continues to work as a librarian. Jackie, who has rheumatoid arthritis, and Sue have both been through divorce, with a varied number of children and responsibilities to deal with. Yet both remain as positive as their friend. In spite of life’s hardships they each seem to be able and willing to make the most of what life has to offer, good or bad.
Suzanne, who never felt close to her parents and only really started to get to know her mother right before she died, has many regrets about her life. But her marriage of more than 20 years is still a positive force in her life, and her children and her bereavement counseling provide a certain sustenance. She admits to feeling discomfort at the intrusion of Apted’s camera, because it forces her to re-examine her painful past every seven years; but she still does it.
Tony’s dream was to be a jockey—something he fought for all his young life, then experienced in one brief moment and suddenly his dream was over and he was faced with what remains after the dream. True to his seven-year-old’s promise, he turned to being a cabbie, married, had children, and now lives in a house in the suburbs. He is best described as “scrappy and resilient,” seems regretful at some of the turns his life has taken, but obviously enjoys the notoriety the program has brought into his life.
Symon is now in his second marriage, and it seems to be a very positive experience for him. Having lost his only parent some years ago, and his first wife and most contact with his three children, Symon appears to have come to terms with his life. He focuses on his family and his future, and the promise that it might hold. Being the child of both black and white parents, he states that struggles over race issues seem pointless to him; he hears the negative from both sides and realizes that both parties are essentially saying the same thing.
Then there are three young men who are from upperclass backgrounds and have all gone into law of one sort or another. Two of them refused to take part in this segment, and the one who does take part (Andrew) seems reluctant to do so. This struck me as particularly odd since they’ve been a part of the program six times in the past. However, their lack of involvement does make a comment on the whole undertaking; and even this is interpreted differently, depending upon the viewer.
Originally released on British television in 1998, 42 Up will be appearing, very briefly, at the art house nearest you. If it has already been, then rush to find the nearest video store carrying it. (Hint: Facets, located in Chicago, rents a few entries in the “Up” series and works with you via the mails.) Whatever opportunity you have of seeing this film, don’t miss it. 42 Up is compelling and thought-provoking, and everyone seems to come away with something they can compare to their own life. This is a powerful documentary and worth taking extraordinary efforts to watch.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.
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