This week, the latest installment of Michael Apted’s fascinating Up documentary series, 56 Up, finished airing on ITV, following a frustrating three-week compartmentalisation of what will likely be shown overseas as a single feature. Less-than-ideal delivery system aside, Apted’s customary flair for judiciously incorporating previous material into the modern, ever-changing context keeps the series as socially relevant and emotionally powerful as it ever has been.
While the onset of the participants into middle-age in 42 Up and 49 Up saw them biting back at filmmaker Apted for what they perceived as an intrusion into their lives, by 56, most of them appear far more relaxed and at ease, likely explaining why all but-one – the never-present Charles – decided to take part. In theory, this general lack of conflict might slacken the human interest element, but the series, never an exercise in car-crash exhibitionism, remains deeply invested in the idea of connection, of what binds us as members of the human race, and ostensibly, what separates us. Moreover, it invites, even forces us to look inward at ourselves as we observe the participants living their lives, just as we are.
Of course, at the fringes, the circle of life is as prevalent a theme as it has been in the last two films in particular; East End girl Jackie, now living in Scotland, has lost several members of her extended family during the interim, a sad fact of life albeit one which is salved by the growth of her children into fine young men. Nick similarly remarks that his parents are doing “not well”, and clearly distraught about this – and perhaps about the innate lack of time, living in the US, that he has been able to spend with them – refuses to elaborate. Probably the most telling revelation here, however, comes from John, who was initially pitched as something of a “villain” in earlier instalments, yet finally chooses to confess that at age 9, his father died, and he attended Oxford because of a scholarship rather than through financial means.
Conversely, several participants appear relieved to have escaped the shadow of their upbringing, and are rightly proud to have shaken the curse of repeating their parents’ behaviour. Suzy, coming from a family of means but largely neglected by her father, has created a stable, seemingly loving family unit. In kind, unassuming idealist Bruce, who came from wealth but famously declared a wish at age 7 to “see his daddy”, is a doting father to his two sons in very much the way his own was not. Symon, one of two participants we first met in a children’s home, is still married to his second wife, and they continue to provide foster services for troubled children. That he has made of his unfortunate upbringing a positive result is deeply affecting, the most moving product of which occurs as we see several of his former foster kids returning to visit and exalt his warm, father-like presence.
Governmental disapproval is a key theme throughout 56 Up, as countless participants voice their concerns over the Tory-Liberal coalition and their failure to stem the tide of the recession, something which has throughout the group pervaded class and social status, and challenged Apted’s initial class-binding hypothesis. Take working class East-Ender Sue, perpetually engaged, though still keeping several of her children at home, she decries sky-high property prices, making it more difficult than ever for youngsters to get “on the ladder”. Jackie, meanwhile, passionately attacks David Cameron in particular for having her deemed fit to work despite being unable to find a job that can accommodate her debilitating arthritis. The third of the East End girls, Lynn, who worked as a librarian for many years, has since lost her job and had to draw an early pension. She criticises a lack of facilities for disadvantaged children, which in turn means that her husband will have to work for much longer. Andrew, the well-to-do lawyer who attended school with John and Charles, also notes how the next generation of women will probably have to work in most cases, and work longer, too. Nick, who has been living in the US in various forms of academia for decades, decries the UK’s poor job opportunities for postgraduates, asserting that the country failed to provide an adequate, professional scientific career for him, and thus he had to begrudgingly move to the States. London cabbie Tony, meanwhile, is critical of the previous Labour government, for leaning too far left and creating a mess that the present coalition has been left to clean up.
Ironically, it is Liverpudlian Peter’s similar criticism of the Thatcher government in 28 Up which saw him lose his job and inevitably drop out of the experiment altogether. At 56, however, he makes a surprise return, now re-married with two children, yet explicitly stating his appearance is largely in order to promote his country music band. His candour reflects that of John’s in earlier films; the participants, taking this “poison pill” every seven years, opt to exploit their oft-unwanted “fame” in order to provide a podium for their own self-interest.
The initial conception of the show has been frequently critiqued for failing to anticipate how issues of gender and race might play into later entries. It falls to Tony to discuss this in the present, with Michael Apted suggesting that some of his earlier remarks regarding immigration in the East End could be construed as racist. A defensive Tony stands steadfast and challenges Apted, and quite ironically remarks how Ramadan increased his business and helped him through a tough financial time.
A pleasant new development of 56 Up, is the inevitability of several participants now becoming grandparents; shy but well-meaning Aussie Paul now has a fleet of grandkids, while both of Lynn’s children also have started families. The one who has always defied the pack, however, is Neil, the sweet Liverpudlian boy who as a man continues to surprise and is normally saved for the end, presumably for suspense purposes (albeit not this time). Last time we met him, things were looking up slightly. Here we see him at his happiest in a while – a pleasant relief for long-time viewers everywhere no doubt – still living in Cumbria, and still scruffy as ever, but positively putting into his community even if he remains jobless and lives off state hand-outs. He expresses a keenness to set the record straight to Apted, but confesses that he resolutely still seeks fulfilment in terms of personal relationships; he is lonely, and heartbreakingly acknowledges that what makes us happy is indeed other people.
With the onset of old age that comes with 63 Up and entries beyond, take 56 Up as a breather, a waypoint of contentment, as the series will likely take a morbid – and admittedly quite fascinating – turn soon enough. Nevertheless, the optimism with which most participants appear to face the future is both heart-warming and reassuring. A closing final shot, of Tony standing in the very same dog-track he frequented as a child, now transformed into the Stratford Olympic stadium, is a breathless reminder of the future’s potential for progress rather than decay.
Perhaps the most telling statement of all comes from Peter – “Life isn’t there to be regretted, life is there to be lived”. The most vital and moving sociological document of our times remains invigorating despite mostly maintaining the status quo because by now the “characters”, older, balder, and podgier, are like old friends.
56 Up initially aired on ITV over three weeks from May 14th to May 28th, 2012.