There are moments of visual poetry in Michael Apted's Up docu-series so crystallized by the screen that they are difficult to shake; poetic in their refraction of visual totems of late-20th century life, and in their repetition, played many times over in this rhythmic, longitudinal study totaling nine parts, sixteen episodes and one thousand and nineteen minutes. At 35, a formerly homeless man struggles head-down through slanting rain and a vast expanse of muddy fields, the only brightness the emerald-green paint stroke of the plastic bag he carries. At 28, a young husband and wife hold hands and sip Coca-Colas by an idyllic harbor, both wearing and surrounded by the primary colors of 1980s Eric Rohmer, like Boyfriends and Girlfriends. There are many moments like this, like the movies: at 21, a boy talks in voiceover about his mother, whom we know sent him to a children’s home in his earlier childhood. The camera observes her tentatively walking across their council estate, fur coat waist-belted and handbag in arm-crook (femininity’s thin armor: Barbara Loden, Wanda). And right where it all began, there’s a 7-year-old farmer’s boy, who has not yet met many other 7-year-old boys, blonde haired and dressed in a blazer and shorts. It is 1964, life in England is in monochrome, and this boy is climbing in the shadow of a great white cliff face. He is surely the loneliest boy in the world, you think.
These images — memories, really — of British life being lived have stuck on to me during a period where British life, in terms of it actually being lived out, seems to have stopped. When Michael Apted passed away in January, the U.K. was three days into another national lockdown — its third, if anyone was still counting. As my peers went back to the beginning of their own comfort watches, I went back to a more fundamental kind of beginning: by watching Seven Up!, the extraordinary documentary featuring the musings on money, education, family, love, religion and politics of a group of 7-year-olds from different social classes in 1964. From there — much like Apted himself — I just kept going.
The Up series is one of the great televisual triumphs in history, more epic than The Sopranos, more intimate than dusting off your own longheld family albums. And it is Michael Apted’s most lasting monument: from first working as a 23-year-old researcher on the Seven Up! show — finding many of the children who would feature for the rest of their lives within just three weeks of allotted research time — he took the director’s chair seven years later for 14 Up (sometimes known as 7 plus Seven). From there, Apted conceived and oversaw the long running series for the rest of his career, until his death. Known collectively as the Up series, the documentary series examines a group of 14 children, revisiting them every seven years from age 7 to, in the latest installment, age 63. 63 Up aired in 2019, and since Apted’s death in January, its subjects have expressed their concern that it simply can’t continue without its creator at the helm.
I know what they mean. Apted is a very real presence in the show, not exactly visible but certainly felt, asking questions to the participants behind the camera. At first, the interviews look like they take place at school; in adulthood, they often sit on their own living room sofa, among other places. But it’s the aphorism that forms the show’s central thesis — “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man” — that probably tells us all we need to know about the idea the show’s makers are fueled by: that there is something rigid in who we all are, right from the beginning. And though it’s unlikely that Apted, as a more junior researcher for Seven Up (part of “World in Action” on Granada Television), came up with the original concept, in continuing it through the years his agenda of a class-based argument is clear. It’s not so much that he is always asking questions, but that you hear the kinds of questions he asks, and, especially for the upper class and the working-class participants, he seems to have already formed a conclusion about where they are going. The magic of Up, for me, lies in how this narrative falls away, and in how Apted himself softens and relents as it does. As he told Radio 4 in 2012 — upon the release of 56 Up — he eventually came to realize that, with the series, he had made something about the way people’s lives are, not the system in which they live them out. “I thought, holy cow, maybe I’m doing something I didn’t think I was doing. The issues were the universal issues that we all have to deal with.”
Maybe he feels like a stronger presence because of my mode of reception; the imprint of Apted and the participants is felt more strongly when the space of a lifetime is rapidly streamed through. How I have enveloped myself in Up this year, watching them religiously, most days of the week. And when the years eventually ran out, I compulsively went back to the beginning again. This isn’t how Up was designed to be consumed — for Baby Boomers like my parents, who aged at roughly the same rate, it was a ritual to be watched every seven years. Now, the experience is perhaps comparable to the box sets — as Apted wrote of the DVDs in 2008, now “the audience can see every bit of the old stuff, and can track the characters themselves and make their own judgments, rather than relying on my updates.” He’s right — by watching them in quick succession, I could form my own connections through memory-recall, even while being swept along by Apted’s editing technique of looping the same archival material through the years, the director’s dance motif through these lives.
But besides the hypnotic beauty of watching the participants age seven times as fast — to binge Up can sometimes feel like the subjects’ faces have been put through some kind of Facetune app — I would argue that watching Up today is charged with a different significance. Right now, due to pandemic restrictions, you can't even perform most of the rituals of life that mark the 7-Up children's later lives: birthday parties, marriage, funerals. So, what's left? Up is waiting, and it possesses its own answers.
The answers of Up — its lessons — do not lie in those life milestones. The show’s structure, after all, necessitates a certain amount of “catching up” on the gap of seven years with each encounter. And as the Up series begins to accelerate away from the premise of its makers, the importance of such biographical milestones start to recede from view. In-between, you have the shape of a person’s life, and the only knowledge one can safely assume of any one individual’s: that it is, essentially and deeply, defined by its unpredictability. Sometimes this is the unpredictability of what the camera rests its eyes on and what happens before it: like when 14-year-old Suzy’s interview is interrupted, in the background, by her dog eating a rabbit, or when the participants’ own children look curiously into the camera lens they are supposed to be ignoring as Apted films family dinners. The lesson of such moments, however miniature, is that you can’t plan for anything. As you watch, it’s this unpredictability of real life, lived, that begins to crack the walled, class-based structure those men in TV of the 1960s attempted to so carefully build.
“All I understand is dogs, prices, girls, knowledge, roads, streets, squares, mum and dad, and love. That’s all I understand; that’s all I want to understand.” These words are Tony’s, spoken aged 21 — confident, working-class, brash yet touchingly sensitive, he is undoubtedly one of the “stars” of Up, spitballing with Apted over the years. It’s more than a case of televisual personality: he is wonderfully open with the director, serving as a vivid contrast to other male subjects who either drop out, or close-off, as the years progress. (Many participants are quick to learn the very British trait of holding one’s emotional cards close to the chest, or locked away in one).
For me, the show’s value lies not in its extreme contrasts — many of them class-based — but in the space held, and maintained, between those contrasts. Perhaps that’s why I prefer the quieter trajectories, finding those the ones I watched out for as the years progressed. Like Suzy, an upper-crust woman — in a show with very few other women — who fascinated me even in her conventional trajectory out of girlhood to womanhood. An obliviously privileged seven-year-old, and then a teenager of parents going through divorce, she has the brittle shell of a lonely girl at the peak of her adolescent suffering; as a 21-year-old, the chain-smoking insouciance of one who has inhaled that suffering and chosen to wear it as cool indifference (which, of course, is more revealing of the suffering than anything). Apted takes a kind of mischievous pleasure in catching his subjects in the act of self-contradiction, Suzy especially. From 21 to 28, Suzy’s statement of “I don’t like babies” will be met with an instant cut to her newborn baby’s face, to be replayed in every documentary she takes part in since. And yet Suzy, who plays to many as an unsympathetic character for her comfortable life and evident distaste for the process, represents something more profound than Apted could even reckon for. In my own mode of reception — myself, a 29-year-old British woman whose parents have divorced — I can see the effort of her discomfort forged into comfort. She has at some point, I think, decided to trust other people again; maybe even to trust Apted, as “painful” as she says the show has been for her. On the level of the show’s narration, she is stereotypical; on the level of the space between the laptop screen and my own experience, she is also profoundly not.
There is also Symon, who sweetly admits he has given up on his dream of being a film star at 14, even as he simultaneously becomes something else via the lens of the show; not a screen star, who tends to be stamped in our mind as one time, place or age, but someone more intimately tied to the screen, who inhabits it, and thus inhabits my own mind. Symon whose mother sends him to a children’s home, who doesn’t seem to blame her for that, and is accepting. He is indeed too accepting: at seven, he dreams about how “all the world was on top of me, and I just about got out, and everything flew up in the air and it all landed on my head.” Life weighs on him like this — this mixed-race man in 1960s Greater London who never knew his Black father — and the world piles on top, including, soon, an unhappy marriage and the five children it produces. I missed Symon’s presence in 35-Up — he is absent, and I worried for him, crushed under the whole weight of the world. At 42, he returns, remarried and smiling; many of his children by his former marriage don’t speak to him. As the years go on, I watch as they begin one by one to forgive him (you don’t see these moments of forgiveness, but they accumulate until everyone Symon wants in his life is there, again, off-screen and sometimes on). He is someone who accepted his lot in life, who found no actionable plan for his dreaming, but he is content. “Your life is as it is, not what it could be,” he says, finally, at 63.
Symon, like many others in the show, is someone who has made mistakes and yet deserves every happiness, you feel. In a show with few women’s stories, I cannot help but see my father in these men; my mother in their wives. Apted himself has described the greatest unexpected lesson of the series, for him, of being the importance of family. “By the time we got to the end, I think he had realized the importance of family, to people,” said his longtime producer Claire Lewis on Radio 4’s Last Word in January. “Fundamentally, in the end. What matters to people is family, love, your children.”
But what about what doesn’t make the cut in Up? Though the class narrative weakens while the familial narrative grows, there are things that go unmentioned, narratives that never emerge onscreen. This is partly the result of Apted’s edit — the series strives to give an impression of forward movement, of growth, of a journey — but also, I began to realize, this occurs at the behest of the subjects themselves. Like Peter, the Liverpudlian boy who is noticeably missing from 35 to 49 Up (the camera on the opening credits always ends on his 7-year-old’s face marveling at polar bears at the zoo, as if to hammer home the absence). But he reappears, aged 56, with terms clearly set with Apted as to the conditions of his return: that is, he wants to promote the Americana band he is in, with his second wife. (There is no mention of the former teacher’s first wife, interviewed at 28 Up, and I think of her).
Self-promotion aside, there is also something empowering in the sense, as time progresses in its seven-year increments, that you are watching the documentary subjects take control of the narrative more, as they too take control in their own lives. Less cynical than those who chase fame, is the way those lifelong participants, who have gamely continued their participation through all kinds of pain, begin to speak their mind to the director: debating with Apted, admonishing him, and, ultimately, wresting from him what he had originally estimated them to be, to become something like the co-directors of their own stories. Jackie, at 42, has a reckoning with Apted that has been 35 years coming. Now, as she says, she wants to talk about “What I want to do…what I hope to do” — not the questions, about men and babies and marriage, that she correctly intuits he has circumscribed the sphere of her life with. (I liked reading in the New York Times, in 2019, about Jackie now practically directing her own scenes for 63 Up). There isn’t the intimacy with the girls of Up that, say, Gillian Armstrong has in Smokes and Lollies (1976), her documentary on three working-class South Australian 14-year-olds who she also revisited at intervals for four more films. But can you imagine Apted gossiping with 14-year-old Jackie, Lynn, and Sue while they apply blue eyeshadow? At 63, Jackie posits to Apted that she feels he did not understand the real roles of women in these early years; he noticeably doesn’t push back.
Up is nothing without this commentary upon, and pushback against, Apted’s own methods throughout. Outside the world of the documentary, the show’s ethnographic method prompted fierce critiques that Apted found himself having to defend. In 2008, he was awarded the American Sociological Association's Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Public Issues, honored for his “fundamentally sociological” vision. Before receiving his award Apted joined a panel to discuss the Up series at the ASA Meetings in Boston, where he responded to many not-so-admiring reflections by the ethnographers present: Mitchell Dunier spoke to the loss of sociological context, Barrie Thorne to the gender imbalance, and Paul Willis to the “structured exercise of power, the costs of domination, and pains of subordination.” As Apted aptly wrote in his written response: “fair enough.”
But the arc of Up, ultimately, is a redemptive one; and that might go for its creator, too. One of the moving things about the series is watching people figure out their relationship with themselves, via a director who is also figuring out his relationship with these same people. It shouldn’t be subject to the requirements of a sustained ethnographic study because its subject is too changeable, too quixotic; the films are reflective of the decades in which they happen, their attitudes ensconced in eras that, with those same clips played on repeat for decades to come, begin to be seen in a different light as we stream them in our own time.
One thing that remains constant is that the show improves. Through tragedy and triumph and confrontation, the series grows as well. Up operates on a framework of forgiveness for its subjects — divorcees, parents, sons and daughters who, like anyone, have made some mistakes — that in turn prompts a kind of profound forgiveness for yourself.
Up tells us that things may change for the worse, and then they do get better. They always get better. The latter episodes, 56 Up and 63 Up, emanate with a kind of deeply-felt, and deeply-earned, peace. Peace, that is, for everyone — no matter if they find it quickly like Suzy, or much later like Neil. Everyone, you realize, will have unexpected bumps in the road; but everyone, I noticed, also gets their summer-holiday, their toes in the sand, their respite in the form of a 30-second sunset shot. Their green ray.
In an expected, but no less impactful, development, the ultimate evidence of life’s unpredictability came with Apted’s own death. His subjects have, naturally, outlived him. By 63 Up, he can admit: I was right about some things, and wrong about others. Behind the scenes, the director matured — he grew. It makes you think: how will I also change?
When one of the show's subjects says, "life is what happens to you when you're looking the other way," he could be talking about the audience. It’s when we weren’t looking that everything really happened, after all. But like stream-of-consciousness literature, Up is not “life itself,” but it comes very close. Watching Up in this time of vacuum, of my life and career not progressing as quickly as I would like or expect, has helped me to let go of my obsession with planning; as Symon says, to embrace my life as it is, not as it could be. Up, and its dedicated, incredible subjects, are evidence that there is always chance for renewal; for rebirth. You just have to let things play out.
At one point in the series, Nick — the astrophysicist emigré who is always, somehow, simultaneously a Yorkshire boy climbing in the shadow of a great, white cliff — describes his geographical home: “Sometimes it’s rather tragic, but it makes other places you go seem rather trivial as well.” He could be talking, I think, about the experience of watching Up.