It has been called, “an existentially terrifying examination of what it is to be alive.” It has also been called “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium.”
The project in question is Michael Apted’s Up and it is back for another update on the lives of its subjects. At one point in its evolution we might have forgotten about it in the seven years between updates, but one thing that’s clear from the latest instalment is that the people involved certainly don’t forget about it.
56 Up (PBS, 10 p.m. on POV) was indeed called “existentially terrifying” by a reviewer in The Guardian but that seems a bit of exaggeration. It was Roger Ebert who called it “inspired, even noble” but even he missed a point – it’s a TV project, begun as an experiment for Granada in Britain. These days, it’s easy to find the earlier editions and to notice the small details in the shifting lives of the participants and one of the themes that emerges from 56 Up is the heightened awareness of its subjects. It’s not just that they are occasionally recognized in public. They know there are voyeurs out there who are inordinately curious and even brood on the shape of their lives.
Now in middle age, many are frustrated about how they have been portrayed. They point out that Apted arrives for a week every seven years and, from a week’s worth of footage, their lives are then summarized in mere minutes. At the same time, many are now more accepting of the burden that the series places on them. They know the series is a formidable documentation of British life and, for better or worse, a chronicle that has a vast and international public fascinated.
Apted recently told National Public Radio in the U.S., “The idea of the film was to examine the British class system in 1963, ’64, to see whether it was changing, see if it was reflecting the very cultural upheavals that were going up in the United Kingdom from the Beatles onward.”
It is chilling to see evidence of that class system at work decades later. Those who were working-class kids at the beginning remain working-class today, and they are the ones who articulate anger at the decline in Britain’s social services. The brutal recession of 2008 hangs over 56 Up, but it is the working class who feel it most.
For many people who have followed the Up series, the truly compelling subject is Neil. At age 7 he was a cheerful, thoughtful child. At 28 he was homeless and alone in the bleak Scottish countryside. In later editions, he seemed to acquire stability and peace, and was involved in local politics. In 56 Up he again emerges as an exceptionally interesting person. He’s still involved in local politics but seems tortured by the assumptions that are made about him from his appearances in the series. He is lonely, reluctant to talk about his mental health, and reveals that he writes a great deal, but nobody is interested in publishing what he writes. Once again, you feel for him, this brave, articulate soul who soldiers on and, always, you think, is on the brink of a breakdown.
A surprise in 56 Up is an appearance by Peter, who dropped out after 28 Up. Then he was a young schoolteacher and had a good deal to say, none of it positive, about Margaret Thatcher’s England. His remarks became fodder for the press in Britain. He was attacked, sneered at and the experience left him bruised. We learn he gave up teaching, studied law, married, divorced and remarried and is now part of a successful band called The Good Intentions. He makes it clear that the only reason he agreed to be part of 56 Up is to promote the band. He remains somewhat guarded about his life but what’s illuminating is that the band has brought him great happiness.
That’s a key to the Up series – the audience’s emotional investment amounts to hope that all of these people find happiness in their lives. And that emotional investment exists because it’s what we wish for ourselves. In looking at 56 Up we are obliged to examine our own lives, even if we believe we are free of the class system it set out to examine. We see how these people have evolved over the years and, in a way, they’re like old friends. Looking at them we see ourselves but are reminded that even from bitter failure – which does erupt in all lives – people grow and learn and survive.
It’s not “terrifying,” and it is noble and serves as a reminder that while we spend so much time looking at the lives of celebrities on TV, very ordinary lives must also be celebrated.