Lives are remarkable things. People are remarkable things. They change in unanticipated ways and remain the same in just as unexpected manners. Can you see the smile of a 7-year-old on the face of a 56-year-old? Are the things that were so important to us when we were 14 still important to us in middle age? In 1964, a group of British filmmakers set out to answer those questions by testing the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” They picked a gaggle of 7-year-olds to film and interview for British television. Seven Up (1964) was directed by Paul Almond but it was a researcher on Almond’s team named Michael Apted who had the enterprising idea to track down the subjects every seven years to keep up on them. That project, directed since 7 Plus Seven or 14 Up (1971) by Apted, is now in its eighth iteration with 56 Up (2013), and it is one of the most astounding film series in existence, a warm document of human nature, lovingly edited and put together as a measure of specific lives as well as lives in general.
Watching these dozen or so people grow up is a fascinating experience, one that is wholly satisfying. These are normal, average people but we get to see just how extraordinary that idea is. Each one has a gripping story, modest perhaps, but true and honest, and it’s mesmerizing to watch their desires change and evolve. Some say they want to go into science then they do. Others say they’ll never be married then, seven years later, we meet their spouses. Human truths are exposed and revealed, and it allows us to take stock of our own lives. Happiness, if it comes at all, comes at different times for people. The wonderful sadness and truth of this series is watching people age and realizing that some of the lucky ones have remained happy all their lives, others waited till middle-age to find it, and others still, disquietingly, were at their happiest in those early episodes.
These people become a certain kind of family and, because we know they are living their lives in the same world we do even when the camera isn’t running, we look forward to seeing who has done what, cross our fingers that certain couples are still together, and get updates on the kids. We watch them change, find themselves, perhaps lose themselves, live. Sometimes the things they say they want don’t come to fruition until 15 or 20 years have gone by, but there’s Apted always ready with the video footage to show that these things were living inside of them years before.
There’s Suzy, who was a moody and sullen teen as her parents got divorced, finding happiness in marriage and similarly finding a self-confidence and a comfort in her own skin. Nick, who at 7, could only stammer, “I don’t answer questions like that,” when asked about girls, who, naturally, grows up to be the man who would say something like, “I don’t mean to be superficial but I think she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” when discussing his wife at age 49. Sweet, unassuming Bruce, who is impossibly square but completely disarming has dedicated his life to teaching those less fortunate in places like the inner city or India (and looking painfully out-of-place in all settings). There’s a wonderful visual metaphor for his life when he takes his family camping and blows up an air mattress which, when it’s filled, won’t fit in the tent.
Neil, who was homeless in a few of the episodes, has completely turned himself around and has found politics (which he predicted at 14) as an elected official in his small town. And the impossibly English John, who spent the first few editions headed to a pompous (and possibly lonely) existence and wore a similar three-piece suit at 21 as he did at 42, finally grows to possess a little self-awareness and even to enjoy talking about things besides his own importance. Here John, a lawyer who donates a certain amount of time to charity, smiles and talks about having officiated friends’ weddings, something we assume would be too quaint for his younger self.
Then there’s everyone’s favorite, Tony, a brawling, bombastic East End Falstaff who tried his hand at being a jockey before becoming a taxi driver (both professions were predicted by a younger Tony, and he has a great story in 56 Up about driving around Buzz Aldrin). In Tony’s teens he ran numbers at a dog track in London. When he was 42, the track was in ruins. Today, the Olympic Stadium stands on the site. Remarkable.
Every episode provides changes, and now, in their 50s, health is a main concern for many (and some have been luckier than others). The biggest change between now and the last update is that there’s been a recession (one predicted by Tony, it seems) and for some that has meant great hardship, while others haven’t noticed. Some, like Jackie, live day to day because of her economic predicament, knowing that, at her age and with the job market the way it is, additional income may be scarce. Others, like Andrew, an upper-class solicitor, seems unfazed (though he has 21st century concerns about the environment). Andrew’s wife, in stark contrast with Jackie, bemoans that she never had to work and now pines for “something to do.” She’s not being casual or flippant, but Apted is able to draw the difference between Andrew’s family and Jackie’s by editing those sentiments the way he does.
Apted is a master documentarian in the way he is able to get out of his subjects what he wants. Does this make the project subject to Apted’s vision as opposed to the pure truth? Perhaps, and the group comments on this. The most fascinating moment of 56 Up occurs between Nick and Suzy, who discuss the nature of the project they’ve been a part of for nearly half a century. Nick has it right when he says these movies are about these dozen people but also about people in general, the way they change, the way they age; that the movie is about a certain person but also about a person as an idea. Suzy is just as correct when she says, with at least a little melancholy, “But then, we’re putting ourselves out there to be that person.”
Suzy, in particular, has been critical of the process, claiming that each episode is her last. John is also aware of the gulf between what he is like and the way he is portrayed through Apted’s lens, but every seven years they are back and we’re better for it. Apted is able to coax out the truth, both in what they say and how they act. Paul, an Australian laborer, and his longtime wife are asked, “Is the chemistry still there?” They feebly agree. “You don’t sound sure,” Apted says and then, by joking with each other, they prove that it is. Paul is one of the happier people in the group (though he battles a self-confidence issue that has bedeviled him from the beginning) and a comment like, “You don’t sound sure,” was intended not to cast a shadow on an obviously happy marriage but to prompt an example of that happiness, which it did.
Some, who have the benefit of seeing their lives chronicled, express regrets. Symon, a forklift driver, says, “If I’d pushed myself at school, probably I could have done a lot better.” “Does that give you pause for thought?” Apted asks. “No, that means I was a lazy sod when I was younger.” That’s emblematic of Symon’s outlook on life, which may be closer to the project’s mission than anyone else’s. This redoubtable series of films is about life as the long-haul, the twists and turns, the ups and downs. Apted is making a universal comment out of specific stories because they share a common truth. When I first saw the series I was 24, between the ages chronicled here. Now I’m 28, exactly half the age of the people shown here but precisely the age they were when they made 28 Up (1984). This added a sort of poignancy as I took stock of my own life compared to theirs at 28 and saw what I could look forward to in the next 28. I’m happy I haven’t had my life on film the way these people have but, selfishly, I’m happy they did. As Symon says, “You don’t stop life because you’ve made a mistake,” and I hope this series, which is mistake-free, doesn’t stop either.