7 Up yours, Or, Growing old on film with Michael Apted

By Peter Valelly

Michael Apted’s continuing documentary the Up! Series began in 1963 with 7 Up, a 40-minute documentary for British television on the lives of fourteen English schoolchildren, ten boys and four girls, of different social classes. The subjects are diverse from the start, with some already coming off as shy, snobby, precocious, or whimsical at age seven. Operating on the Jesuit slogan, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the series set out to return to these individuals every seven years, in installments numbered 7 Up through, most recently, 49 Up, to see how their lives have changed.

The deeply humanistic nature of Apted’s ambition in making this film seems surprising and, honestly, rather weird when stacked against the rest of his career. His notable fiction films include The Coal-Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, and Gorillas in the Mist. More recently, he directed the late-90’s James Bond dud The World Is Not Enough and HBO’s recent mini-series Rome, and in 2003, he was appointed president of the Director’s Guild of America. The more superficial design of Apted’s other projects is perplexing, but then again, the director initially had a more strict vision for the Up! Series; 7 Up, not originally planned to be a continuing series, was designed carry a staunch social message about what Apted and his producers perceived as the inherent structure of predestination in England’s strictly stratified class system. Granted, when viewed as a study of class, the film provokes a number of interesting observations; it is intriguing, for example, how the individuals who are most comfortably aware (and proud) of their class background, like the snooty John or rough-and-tumble jockey-turned-London-cabbie Tony, seem to follow the exact trajectory they predicted for themselves when interviewed at age 7.

Yet even as Apted continues to force this frame of class analysis in his interviews and editing, the film transcends this to reveal larger implications of the human mind, life, and behavior and social systems of culture. Also, for film buffs, in some ways it represents the ultimate documentary; its subject is so vast that it is unnameable. On the other hand, the film diverges wildly from the documentary tradition because the subjects are not interviewed or documented merely to explain a subject, defend an opinion, or tell a story. Rather, the very spectacle of their lives is the film’s subject, and therefore, their discretion wholly informs the film, whether in terms of practical concerns, such as the involvement of their parents, spouses, and children, or in terms of their opportunities to affect certain impressions of themselves in the interviews. Certainly, the participants are aware of their role within the project, and Apted wisely avoids making the film a vacuum, openly allowing the subjects to discuss the film’s influence on their lives and even inviting them to a screening of the first two parts of the film, footage of which bookends 21 Up.

The stance taken among the film’s casual viewers (and in some interviews, Apted himself) seems to be that “it’s so interesting to see how they turn out.” Sure enough, the film’s Wikipedia page has a “spoiler warning” for virgin viewers, but as tempting as it is to marvel at some of the transformations (especially the cripplingly awkward Nicholas’s transformation into a well-spoken, confident, thoughtful, humble, and studly academic), it is more interesting to think about the ways in which our interest in their outcomes speaks to our need for a story in film. We impose arcs of events and ideas of evolution, change, and development on these individuals because that is how we have been taught to view films, even documentaries. The subjects, too, may be guilty of constructing their lives, perhaps because, in our media-saturated age, we are all guilty of this. Perhaps, too, their evolution is a deliberate reaction to the film’s portrayal of them, either an affirmation or a refusal of their portrayals, or an attempt to negotiate the gap between their personalities as presented in the film and who they feel, or wish, they are. The pressure of the film on their lives takes its toll on some subjects, including John, who refused to return after a one-film hiatus unless someone other than Apted interviewed him, or Charles, who opted out of all future films after establishing himself as one of the most interesting figures in the series in 21 Up.

Although only 12 subjects remain, the series continues today. 49 Up, filmed and screened in Great Britain last year, had a brief U.S. theatrical run last month and will be released on DVD here on Nov. 14. Apted has said he hopes to be able to direct 56 Up in 2012, when he will be 72 years old; it will likely be the final installment of the series. However, a number of similar documentaries have cropped up worldwide, including the elusive, which is to say seemingly totally unavailable, 7 Up in America series as well as Australian, South African, and Russian equivalents (intriguingly, the Russian one began filming in the twilight of the USSR). If you haven’t seen the original and are interested, check out the Merriam Park Branch of the St. Paul Public Library at Fairview and Marshall; at least four copies of the DVD box set (through 42 Up) circulate throughout the library system, and you can easily request one or put it on hold.