By Bryan Newbury
February 16, 2008
Watching Seven Up is reminiscent of having one’s first potato chip… crisp, if you’re so inclined. Fourteen Up is like the fifth pack of cigarettes, Twenty One is like the first pack in your fifth year of smoking. When the viewer gets on to Twenty Eight and Thirty Five, he can only speculate as to what those Trainspotting characters are going through.
Upon seeing the first installment, I ran to Liberty Hall video and rented the rest. Well, almost. I was at my limit with Thirty Five Up. Between viewing Twenty One and Twenty Eight Up, I returned the first two discs, knowing that by midnight, if all the loo breaks and crumpet toastings (if Apted is addictive, then Anglophilia may well be contagious) were timed appropriately, I’d be happily viewing the final installment available at the time. I’d followed these fourteen individuals through their lives in the space of a day, one of the finest film experiences a person can ask for.
It was a while before 49 Up would come out. This was a problem. Do I bounce from search engine to search engine scouting out developments in the lives of these people? Do I wait through the excruciating months until Apted can deliver them to me? Each man must make his choice.
A few things were certain: if I could, I would certainly allow John, Charles and Andrew foot my bill in London, swilling beer and sherry. I would then take a car up to Arncliffe and stroll about the Dales, breathtakingly depicted in Nick’s youthful interviews, on the way to meeting up with the one person I’d choose above all to have a conversation with; naturally, it would be Neil.
Not all wishes can or should come true. This doesn’t preclude fortunate things from happening. First, it is with great pleasure that we announce The Up Series is now available as a DVD box set, with a new exclusive Michael Apted interview and featurette and audio commentary by Claire Lewis and others. Given that there is no better way to take in the Ups than in marathon form, viewers will get the opportunity to relive the bliss of each new discovery.
It is regrettable that the Up series has apparently concluded with its sixth installment. Still, this unprecedented collection will serve to provide endless fixes for Up junkies.
A small footnote to that is our opportunity to have a brief interview with the most captivating of the subjects, Neil Hughes. John, Charles and Andrew have refused my requests for air fare to Cumbria, so the interview was conducted via written questions. This, sadly, prevents much follow-up. Endeavoring to get the most out of it, my questions were admittedly compound if not pedantic. I make no apologies. I imagine that Mr. Hughes has answered enough questions about how the film and its subjects have impacted his life. If you want to know that, watch the films. It was quite a discovery to see that Neil is every bit the literary creature we might infer him to be, and a sad state of affairs indeed that his work hasn’t had the outlet of a publisher. New York and London, what are you waiting for?
What are your thoughts on the relative mutability within the class system in contemporary Britain ? One might take from the Up films that its rigidity, if not conquered, is at least in question, yourself being a primary example. To what degree do you credit the film itself, its linking disparate individuals in class and geography, with influencing the class mobility of the subjects?
The basic precept that you couldn’t cross class barriers is false, so whilst it may be true that people have gone down a variety of routes, there is still a lot of sympathy across the group. People can get along together; background doesn’t hold you back from doing so. My situation isn’t due to class background; it is due to my own life (genetic make up / social environment etc).
Surely everyone would like to know how you’d describe the enigmatic Mr Hughes. Joyce once said that he considered Ulysses the only all-around character in literature. It would be fair to say that the person we see in the Up films is as complete, maybe even a bit more complex. Do you see yourself in the literary light that the Neil of the films suggests to the viewer?
It’s funny that you mention that as I’ve been writing seriously since I was 16, despite never having found anyone who wanted to publish my plays and prose. That’s the real me, and I know you can’t spend your whole life writing unless you are privileged. But what I think is if someone claims to be a writer they have the write the play and then not comment in other arenas, the true essence of their thoughts is in their writing.
Deviating a bit from the vicissitudes of politics and your mythological peregrinations, could we get a bit of the banal on Mr Hughes? Your ideal breakfast, favorite film and the like?
Hmm well my ideal breakfast is a cereal with fruit in it and toast! I don’t have a favorite film as I haven’t watched films since I was a child. I do remember that as a child I loved the film Zulu, I even went back and watched that when I was at uni which really proves that the impact stayed with me. I like it because of the courage and the sense of the honour shown by the chief. Obviously there is a gloss put on it, but the message was of courage and people helping each other. I am incredibly interested in literature and plays, and I would say that Macbeth is definitely the greatest play.
Back into politics. There are some very telling scenes in 49 Up, where one of the Eastenders has relocated to the Mediterranean . He suggests that his current situation is closer to the East End he knew as a child. Certainly much has changed in the time these films have been made, and many people have become bemused or concerned about the role of culture, race and religion in the west. How do you see what some call a clash playing out? What is the best way for Britain to absorb a demographic shift and, while retaining its “Britishness”, retain a welcoming atmosphere to its immigrants, particularly Muslim?
It is fair to say that the ethic minority population has grown and diversified and I welcome that, I think it’s wonderful. The world is fluid, and there is still a great deal of injustice – but it isn’t down to minority groups. I find it curious that people love traveling and diversity, but then when they come to UK they are furious with the diversity in their country. I did some teaching in Poland once and half of British contingent were non white, and they were welcomed as warmly as the white people. To our Polish hosts this was a sign of British diversity and they welcomed it, it is definitely a positive sign of being British.
Finally, we’d love to know if you are at work on any pursuits of the pen. Will there be a memoir, a novel – possibly an epic poem – from Neil Hughes?
I am constantly writing, at the moment I am part way through a poem, the third in a long cycle of plays I have written during my life. I’ve written on biblical themes and translated into modern life. Characters like Saul, David etc, all translated into modern drama. It is a reflection on contemporary political issues. I’m not so sure about the memoirs, my life isn’t terribly interesting.