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Seven-year-old Suzy in the documentary "Seven Up!" Courtesy of First Run Features

The smoothing effect of middle age

The 'Up' series documents the lives of 14 ordinary Brits, filming them every seven years. At age 56, the cohort is getting nicer.

By Lee Simpson

“Are grown-ups just as mean, or do people get kinder as they grow older?” The question was put to me 10 years ago by a sobbing young woman overwhelmed by homesickness in a faraway country. As don and chaplain, I answered as truthfully as I could. I was reminded again of her question after watching the brilliant documentary 56 Up. “Yes, they do,” I might have told her. “Kinder and more thoughtful.”

The premise of the Up series is well known: in 1964, a British producer collected 14 seven-year-olds from diverse English towns and backgrounds. He interviewed them, adding candid footage of the boys and girls at play in a London schoolyard. The film Seven Up! was the phenomenally successful portrait of the thoughts and expectations of those chatty children. Every seven years since, filmmakers have revisited this cohort, checking in on the progress of their lives to date. Michael Apted served as researcher on the original production and has directed each of the subsequent films.

Conceived amid Britain’s post-war obsession with shifting social structures, Seven Up! initially served as a measuring stick of the surprisingly resilient class system. But the series has become so much more than that — at its best, a deeply moving and thought-provoking study of how individuals respond to life, love, divorce, disability, joy, loss and the shadow of death.

 For fans, 56 Up is like attending your high school reunion; you catch up with folks you knew “back then.” Neil, perhaps the most compelling subject of the group, continues to wrestle with the impact of mental illness. His youthful insouciance as a child from a comfortable Liverpool suburb did not presage the difficulties he would later experience. Neil’s mix of courage and puzzlement in the face of loneliness and employment struggles is both gruelling and inspiring to observe. We are equally engaged by the character of Jackie, one of three little girls from working-class backgrounds. Jackie is a divorced mom who, against considerable odds, successfully raised three employed sons — no mean feat in a region where youth unemployment is well over 21 percent. Just when it seems life should offer some ease, she is struck by rheumatoid arthritis; recent government cutbacks and redefinitions of what constitutes disability frustrate her future plans.

Yet for both Neil and Jackie, an abundance of generosity and an optimistic and kindly spirit remain hallmarks of life. Neil gives back to his small village as an energetic town councillor and lay leader at a local church. We see him offering support to others less well situated than himself, and he confides that his proudest accomplishment is a newly built public toilet. Jackie, meanwhile, is the ever-cheerful caregiver to her best friend, the terminally ill mother of her now-deceased ex-husband.

56 Up offers few major surprises. A dropout returns, apparently solely to plug his band. Another member of the original group remains offstage: Charles was one of the upscale lads, now a journalist.

One thing long absent from the series gets (lightly) examined this time. How does being profiled for a worldwide audience every few years affect one’s life? In a charming and revelatory departure for the filmmakers, the two original representatives of rural England interview one another on this question. Nick, a successful academic scientist based in the United States, and Suzy, once troubled, now a calm and competent bereavement counsellor, wife and mother, chat about the primary impact of the documentary. What strikes the viewer is the bond between this pair. Even though they are essentially strangers, their gentleness with one another evokes once-close cousins meeting again after a long time apart.

Watching 56 Up, I found myself seeking clues, not so much as to how participants felt about the filming and subsequent publicity, but whether it had shaped their lives. The closest we get to an answer on this is a comment from the other Sue, one of the London girls: “When you actually sit down and think, ‘What has changed in my life in seven years?’ sometimes you get a bit of a shock. This time seven years ago, I seemed on the verge of something big. I’d settled down with a new partner, Glenn, after years of being a single mom. There was talk of us getting married. But have we? No. . . . I’ve found myself wondering if there’s time to squeeze a wedding in, just so it looks like I’ve actually been doing something.”

Critics of the series, especially those outside the United Kingdom, have commented on the banal lives of the chosen and openly wished that the original director had selected more interesting children. Clearly, they have become accustomed to the Sturm und Drang of reality TV. For me, the draw lies in the subjects’ very ordinariness and our ability to relate to it. Being of their generation, I find this compelling viewing, pondering what my life might be had it been scrutinized this closely.

Were there actions taken, career choices made, mates selected, rejected or lost due to the impact of the filming and the long shadow of regular invasions by the camera? Would Nick’s first marriage have ended without 35 Up? Then there is the affair that Tony, the cocky but charming London cabby, alludes to in several episodes. He broke it off, mended his marriage; he and his wife are deeply involved with family, supportive of a troubled daughter and devoted to the grandchildren they help raise. Would the adulterous romance have ended differently had his future not been subject to oversight by millions? Does public exposure act like divine judgment in the lives of the subjects, the secular equivalent of that childhood image of God keeping score in a heavenly notebook?

I wonder how the group will face the ravages and consolations of age as they enter their seventh decade. Will the notes of increasing family allegiance and kindliness be sustained? Stay tuned for 63 Up!

Rev. Lee Simpson lives in Lunenburg, N.S.

Author's photo
Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.
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