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By Bryan Newbury
November 14, 2006

Do not be alarmed. That sound you heard at the coffee shop this morning was United States documentary buffs praising the celluloid gods in for the manna they’d received from their rental clerk.

Michael Apted’s latest installment of the Up series has hit the street after an excruciating wait. For the film fan, it is something akin to having a class reunion, Thanksgiving Dinner and a letter from a distant relative all at the same time. The opening sequence from 1964’s World in Action feature takes us back to the point we became aware of this groundbreaking work. Since Seven & Fourteen, Apted’s septennial look into the lives of English men and women from across the class and geographical spectrum has surpassed simply groundbreaking and been catapulted into the legendary realm. An argument could be made that it stands alone atop Olympus in the world of documentary filmmaking.

As Apted has admitted on many occasions, the Up series started off with some preconceptions of the class system in Britain that turn out to be far more nuanced than anyone had thought. Rather than serving as a document for the rigid class system, over the years the Ups have displayed striking exceptions to it. Beyond that, it has chronicled the new face of London to some degree, as well as the ever unchanging Dales and Scottish countryside.

The first notion that a careful viewing of the Ups dispels is that of a glass ceiling for the working class. Though many of the East Enders in the series have led reasonably predictable lives in relation to the class they were born into, a strain of upward mobility permeates their stories. Tony, for example, has made quite a living for himself.

(Here’s where a recounting of 49 Up gets tricky. We knew in 42 Up that Tony had come a long way from being a failed jockey. Glad to report he is still doing well, but it would be both unwise and unfair to divulge too much about his, or anyone’s, current condition. Many have presumably avoided press for the film in order to maintain suspense after all these years. The review will continue based on that presumption.)

As a sociological experiment, there are certainly holes in methodology. While there is little reason for doubting that Tony’s irrepressible spirit and resilient nature are causes for his successes, it is difficult not to speculate as to just how much his appearance in the series contributed. Tony isn’t shy about it himself, and the entrepreneurial side of him has seen fit to make hay out of the fame he’s enjoyed.

He may be the only one for whom the word “enjoy” is applicable when discussing the fame from this series. It is exciting to know that 49 Up features more of the original group than the last four installments, but all are reticent. Frequently the subjects are found to be psychically scarred to one degree or another by this time capsule. As is mentioned in Nick’s segment, it is quite a thing to have such a concrete and vivid scrapbook. The participants in 49 are laudably circumspect, and appear to have made peace with the idea, knowing just how important a document it is.

John might take exception to that characterization. In fact, he has since Fourteen Up. He continues to take part despite his reservations, mainly to shine a light on his own public service work. There is a very comical exchange with him likening the series to reality television. He hits some choice spots, actually, but even he is no doubt aware of just how engaging these pictures are regardless of whatever coarse entertainment value they provide.

The picture that the Up series has provided us regarding class attitudes, fates and roles is not weakened by the fact that they aren’t etched in stone. In fact, one could look to the current states of Jackie, Sue, Lynn, Andrew and (surprisingly) Bruce to posit the argument that class roles are encoded into the English DNA. There is a wide variety of outlook and experience among them, yet all are basically rooted in either a working- or upper-class way of thinking. Contrasting Jackie’s squabble with Apted’s portrayal of individuals through 42 to Bruce’s new direction makes this quite clear.

It goes without saying that the people in the film are just that, and not automatons who go about relating to only the socioeconomic stations of their births. Witness the impact of emotionally crippling formative years on both Paul and Simon. If 49 Up stands out from the rest of the series, it is largely for the emotional insight which becomes more whole with age. Should there be another Up in six years, 49 will no doubt be supplanted by its successor in this regard.

The real coup would be to convince Charles or even Peter to take part in 56 Up. This does set the bar high, as landing these twelve again seems doubtful.

The most compelling person for the last twenty-eight years has been Neil. From a bright-eyed Liverpudlian schoolboy to a university dropout and squatter to homeless nomad and eventually councillor, his is the story for which we’re all waiting. Everyone’s life goes through a series of twists and turns, but Neil makes the rest of the group look as though they were in perpetual stagnation. He is the wild card, constantly embroiled in emotional turmoil beyond that of any of the others. By 28 one could be forgiven for suggesting he’d be buried by the next installment. With each successive Up, we find Neil’s life improving. What would be the next bombshell?

It is sad to report that there isn’t a bombshell here or really anywhere else in the film. The subjects appear to be stabilizing to one degree or another. There are certainly surprises. It isn’t as though Neil is in the same position as he was seven years prior, and his relationship with Bruce is a bit different than one might have imagined. Beyond that, there are quite a few children, grandchildren, marriages, divorces and re-marriages taking place. No one is quite the same. Truth be told, the bombshell—should we be forced to classify one—is more in the group’s physical appearance than anything else. 49 Up is less captivating than the others are as a result.

This is not to say that those hymns of praise hovering in the atmosphere on 14 November, 2006 are without cause. The change is in the viewer. At this point, we almost know what to expect. The more a person ruminates on this, the more a fairly stunning conclusion is drawn. Somehow Apted’s films have brought us so close to these people it really is like a class reunion, Thanksgiving Dinner and a letter from a distant relative. There might not be fireworks per se, but we are all very happy to get a chance to see our loved ones again. And they really are loved ones, in spite of how peculiar that is.

Could it be that we’re not seeing fireworks because we’ve grown accustomed to these brilliant flashes of light?


135 minutes, Color and Black & White, 2005

Michael Apted, First Run Features

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Reveiw this film for yourself.

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