Big Screen Berkeley: 56 Up

56 Up

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” This Jesuit motto was taken to heart by the producers of Granada Television’s 1964 documentary, Seven Up!, no doubt because its premise of predestination dovetailed so comfortably with their assumptions about Britain’s enduring class system.

Almost fifty years later, the premise has, in some respects, been borne out. The privileged children of the early sixties became lawyers; the working class children drive forklifts and taxis. But the Up series (continuing with 56 Up, opening this Friday, February 15th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas) also provides evidence that, while the class system may not have crumbled, its constraints have loosened somewhat over the last half century.

Middle class boy Michael Apted’s career has been tied to Up since he first began working for Granada at the tender age of 23. Initially a researcher for Seven Up!, Apted was promoted to the director’s chair for the next episode and has remained in it ever since. Despite making his fortune directing such Hollywood hits as Coal Miner’s Daughter and The World Is Not Enough (and now being well past pensionable age) he remains committed to the children he first met in 1963.

Indeed, constancy remains the most apt descriptor for the series. Apted’s off-camera presence remains as soothing as ever, as he gently but firmly plies his subjects with questions that aren’t always comfortably or easily answered. Their trust in him is reflected by the continued participation of thirteen of the fourteen children initially filmed in 1963, with only BBC producer Charles Furneaux remaining in ‘retirement’ after his final appearance in 21 Up.

Viewers familiar with the series have no doubt developed attachments to certain ‘characters’ over the years. My personal favorite remains Neil, the wayward soul seen tramping around the Scottish Highlands in 28 Up. Now deeply involved in Liberal Democrat Party politics, a local politician in Cumbria, and a former parliamentary candidate, Neil’s life has probably been the least predictable and most interesting of all fourteen children. Still struggling with his demons, Neil clearly dreads the arrival of the cameras every seventh year but gamely faces them nonetheless.

Then there’s cheeky chappie Tony, the would-be jockey who became a black cab driver instead. The polar opposite of Neil, Tony’s as happy as ever despite some ill-advised adventures in the Spanish property market, his return to Hackney Wick in East London one of the film’s few visual highlights.

56 Up appropriately reflects the dolorous effects of the Great Recession and the subsequent UK coalition government’s austerity policies. In addition to Tony’s investment misfortunes, Tory-Lib Dem budget cuts have left East End girl Jackie on the verge of losing her disability benefits, while school chum Lynn has been made redundant by Bethnal Green Library.

There’s much, much more, of course, including Symon’s admission that he could have done better than moving freight at Heathrow and Nick’s regret that he was unable to continue his academic career in Britain. The looming question, however, is whether the series will continue seven years hence, when Apted will be pushing 80 and his children all on the cusp of retirement. Except Neil, of course, who could well be Prime Minister come 2020.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

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  • irisandjules

    We just watched all the segments in the last month and now cannot wait to see 56 up. It is so interesting, and I just love the commentary from the 7 year olds. One of my favorite is the commentary about getting married and eating greens :-)

  • bingo

    this is an amazing series. I started watching them years ago when Ebert did a review (I think 42 up was the most recent); great concept. even if it feels a bit eerie watching them in sequence.

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  • 4Eenie

    I am so excited to see this. I’ve watched every one of the Up series and eagerly anticipate this one!