Jackie, Lynn and Sue, as seen in 49 Up.
How do people change over the years? Can the adult already be found in the child of seven? What account would you give that child of the life you have lived since? These are the questions that have been explored, with mounting tension and surprise over four decades, in one of cinema’s most remarkable enterprises, the Up series. Inspired by the Jesuit maxim “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” England’s Granada Television began in 1964 what would become a unique record of English life and Western culture at the end of the 20th century.
In 1964, Granada’s “World in Action” team, including a young Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist), interviewed a diverse group of seven-year-olds from across England, asking them to describe their lives and hopes. The original 7 Up was a beguilingly unselfconscious social self-portrait from a time when cinema was still young and television an infant — in fact, 7 Up was television’s first experiment in recording real people living their real lives.
Over the years, as Apted has tenaciously pursued the Up series, revisiting the children every seven years as they have grown up, navigating the divides between childhood dreams and adult reality, not all have participated in each succeeding film. Some have reacted against the series’ intrusiveness. Others have embraced their roles. As 49 Up revisits questions of love, marriage, career, class and prejudice — deftly inter-cutting footage from earlier films with contemporary interviews — it discovers surprising ruminations about the Up film series itself as well as unexpected turns in individual lives.
Apted has come a long way from his beginnings as a researcher at Granada Television to directing major award-winning feature films in both England and the United States. But he has never flagged in his dedication to the Up filmsand the pure documentary impulse they represent. In 49 Up, Apted, of course, rounds up the usual suspects. In fact, he manages to round up more of them than for any of the earlier sequels. The last time the series saw John, for example, he was a new barrister just graduated from Oxford. Married to Claire, he decided to stop taking part in the films. In 49 Up, John reveals why he has come back to the series and tells the tale of his life from then until now.
More familiar to the series’ fans will be Tony, who, as a seven-year-old, wanted to be a jockey. He became a cabbie instead. Still, it was a good life for an “Eastender.” In 42 Up, Tony showed viewers around the solid middle-class home he shared with his wife, Debbie, and their three children. But he never quite gave up dreams of glamour — embracing his role in the series and even trying to break into show business. 49 Up reveals how Tony and Debbie, now grandparents, saved their marriage from infidelity and just what has become of Tony’s acting ambitions.
In 7 Up, upper-class public schoolboy Bruce wanted to be a missionary in Africa to “teach people who are not civilized to be, more or less, good.” The series followed Bruce from Oxford to teaching in Bangladesh. At 35 Up, returned from foreign missionary work, he was unmarried and lonely. By 42 Up, Bruce had met a fellow teacher, Penny, while working in London’s East End, and the pair had tied the knot. Has the couple managed to have the family they dreamed of?
Sue, Jackie and Lynn began the series as girlhood friends, voicing the half-realistic, half-dreamy hopes of working-class girls for good husbands and decent jobs. The Up series subsequently saw Sue marry at 24 and divorce by 35. In 42 Up, she was a struggling, single mother with a son and daughter from her marriage. But she had met a new man. 49 Up asks if Sue has finally found a stable life with Glen.
The series similarly followed Jackie through marriage in her 20s and divorce by age 35. In 35 Up, she had a son from a brief relationship after her divorce. By “42 Up,” she’d had two more sons from passing encounters, and she was living with all three boys in a council flat near Glasgow. 49 Up finds Jackie and sons in Scotland. Surviving on benefits and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, she says wistfully that Scotland reminds her of the close-knit world of London’s East End when she was growing up.
In 7 Up, Lynn’s ambition was to work in Woolworth’s. Instead, she went to work in a library and by 42 Up was still there, a rock of stability among the three friends. But 49 Up finds Lynn devastated by news that her job as a children’s librarian might be abolished. The mother of two wrestles with her anger over losing her life’s work and with her fears over how it will change her family’s life.
The young Suzy had had a difficult upbringing and dreamed of raising her own children in a more stable environment. By 42 Up, however, Suzy was having problems getting along with her own children. Has she managed to break the cycle of miscommunication between generations?
The series saw Paul, who lived in a children’s home as a seven-year-old, emigrate to Australia in his early teens. Now, in 49 Up, he has a wife and children, and talks proudly of his daughter, the first member of his family to go to university. But there are clouds in Paul’s sky — a change in career by his wife bodes ill for his own hopes.
Symon lived in the same children’s home as Paul in 7 Up. By 42 Up, Symon had a new wife and son — and children from a first marriage who refused to see him. In 49 Up, he is back with a touching update.
In 7 Up, farmer’s son Nick said he wanted to learn about the moon but firmly refused to answer any questions about girls. In 14 Up, the shy teenager stuck to his guns. By 21 Up, Nick had met Jackie, and in 35 Up they were married and living in America. By 42 Up, the couple had a son, but Jackie was missing home. Both the marriage and Nick’s career were at stake.
The series also catches up with the fortunate Andrew. In 42 Up, he had been happily married to Jane for over 15 years and was a partner at a law firm. The eldest of his two sons was planning to go to the same boarding school he attended. How fortunate has Andrew remained?
And what’s happened to Neil? A happy child in 7 Up, he was, by age 28, wandering lonely and homeless in the Highlands. He surprised viewers when, in 42 Up, he was rediscovered working as a Liberal Democrat councillor in Hackney. The once-homeless man hoped to win a seat in parliament. Has he succeeded? Has he still got a roof over his head?
49 Up is a marvelous jewel box of stories as individual as they are entwined. It is a reminder of just how real cinema can be.
“The Up films had a modest beginning,” says director Michael Apted. “The first was just an episode in the groundbreaking, in-your-face ‘World in Action’ series. It had a sly, ingenuous surface, the charming and amusing thoughts of a group of seven-year-olds ruminating on sex, money, school, race, love, mum and dad, the future and each other. It’s a cruel trick to confront people with the cold reality of the past. Despite that, some enjoy being in the film and claim it as a thing to treasure; others take part under sufferance, persuaded that the films are unique and we should finish what we started. I thank them all for their generosity and courage in making these films possible. For me, the Up films are a priceless gift.”