In 1964, director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist) was a young researcher on the experimental documentary series World in Action for a program called Seven Up!, produced for England’s Granada Television. Taking its cue from the Jesuit maxim “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the film focused on 7-year-olds from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. By asking 14 children about their lives and their hopes and fears for the future, the filmmakers aimed to explore contemporary English attitudes, especially regarding the class system, as expressed by children. And by following the youngsters as they progressed through life, the Up series looked to test the strength of that system and the truth of the Jesuit saying. Was the adult already visible in the 7-year-old?
After Seven Up!, Apted took the series’ directorial helm, and over the half-century since, he has returned every seven years to ask the same subjects to talk about how they see their lives. The result has been a unique, inspired and always-surprising chronicle of lives-in-the-making. In 56 Up, Apted finds the “kids” have mostly weathered the marital, parental and career tumults of middle age with remarkable aplomb, even as they begin facing the challenges of aging, illness and economic crises.
From cab driver Tony to schoolmates Jackie, Lynn and Susan to the heartbreaking Neil, more life-changing decisions and surprising developments are revealed as the participants turn 56. Apted employs a telescopic method when presenting his subjects, cutting back and forth between the present time of 56 Up and clips from earlier installments to create portraits in motion. For veteran viewers of the series, this is rich cinematic fabric. Apted quickly and dramatically brings up to speed anyone who hasn’t seen some or all of the previous films.
Not all original Up subjects have agreed to participate in each of the films. Some have dropped out and then back in, for reasons they best explain themselves, and one of the delights of 56 Up is the love-hate relationship some have with the series.
56 Up is another step in a life-spanning project—for filmmaker, subjects and viewers—that has no parallel in the history of film. Like its predecessors, it probes a profound question: What becomes of the dreams of children?
56 Up is a production of ITV Studios Limited. Like all the episodes of the Up series since 28 Up, 56 Up is a First Run Features release in the United States; it will be available on DVD this fall.