By Michael Sandlin.
“Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” is the bit of ancient philosophy that serves as the abiding impetus behind Michael Apted’s five-decades-long documentary series. The participants in this ongoing sociological experiment are both male and female, privileged and poor, filmed from the time they were 7 years old in 1964 and revisited by Apted every seven years up to the latest (and likely last) installment of this compulsively watchable series, 63 Up. Of course, the idea that one’s adult future can be predicted while one just still a tiny primary school tot is much more realistic when one is speaking of born-and-bred Britons caught in what is still a stubbornly rigid class system. That system’s claustrophobic air is unmistakable throughout these documentary installments – especially in the last two episodes, which play out in the midst of the UK being ruled by an austerity-obsessed, Brexit-blinded Tory government. So with Tory Social Darwinism in full swing, compounded by the ongoing historic realities of the British class divide, it’s not surprising that the working-class subjects represented in the film have livelihoods that are either stagnating or on the wane; meanwhile the representatives of the upper-class – the ones who in 1964’s 7 Up already knew they were headed to Cambridge or Oxford – are now mostly doing quite well, thank you, as solicitors, barristers, or academics.
However, 63 Up brings with it, more than in previous installments, a sense of lives winding down and an atmosphere of ruminative reflection on the past rather than hope for what future remains in front of them. There are a few unexpected surprises and personal revelations – some pleasantly so, others not so much. Nick, the physics professor from the Yorkshire Dales, has just learned that he has cancer of the throat – not surprisingly these are easily the most emotionally affecting interviews of the film. And it’s only mid-way through the story of Lynn, another working-class East Ender, that we learn that this lifelong librarian, who struggled with depression and precarious employment, has died. Proud working-class East Ender Tony, an ex-jockey and longtime cabbie (who moonlights as a film extra), is seeing his black cab business being undercut by Uber drivers. Yet at one time this self-described “boy from the buildings” was a rare example of class-defying social mobility in action, having dutifully saved his pennies over the years and getting a few rungs up on the real estate ladder. He had even begun pursuing dreams of developing holiday properties in Spain. But with his cab trade in the dumps and Brexit looming, he’s had to sell up overseas and relocate to the not-so-romantic suburbs of Essex (“I’ll never vote Tory again,” he says at one point).
Arguably, though, the most consistently fascinating and probing character study here (and throughout the series) is of Neil, a brilliant but mentally unstable college dropout whose cinematically documented life has taken him from being homeless and living in shelters in the Shetland Islands to in later years serving as a Lib Dem councilor in an East London district; these days he’s in a much more stable (but still melancholic) state. Now he tends cattle on a modest country estate in France, finally having achieved some modicum of sanity in bucolic life and continuing Christian devotion. On the opposite end of the spectrum there is mellowed societal malcontent Peter, another Liverpudlian, and someone who had previously dropped out of the series because the media had portrayed him as a stereotypical “angry red.” Having Peter back for 63 Up, admittedly, doesn’t add up to much in the overall scope of the film and seems like a rare misjudgment on Apted’s part. Peter admits that the only reason he agreed to return was self-serving: to promote his tedious acoustic folk band, which looks and sounds like some mockumentary folk act from A Mighty Wind.
Apted’s 63 Up bears the same qualities as its predecessors have had from the very beginning: it reminds us that few Hollywood screenwriters could imbue their fictional characters with the sort of compelling humanity that the Up series has managed to capture on film over the past 56 years. The only significant drawback to 63 Up is that now each of Apted’s subjects have accumulated such a substantial filmed history now that often the flashbacks to previous episodes seem more intrusive in the context of each subject’s current life; these old excerpts take up more screen time now, so much so that it sometimes feels as though a few of the subjects’ present lives are given short shrift. Nevertheless, Apted’s parting shot for the Up series certainly does justice to its original noble aims. If we can learn anything from this fascinating 56-year-long social experiment, it’s that even in the 21st century opportunities for getting ahead for non-Oxbridge types are still shockingly limited. On the one hand, it’s a given that it takes hard work and lots of luck for the British working class to transcend class barriers; ironically, it also seems to take an equal amount of sustained effort for members of the privileged classes to sink anywhere below their station in life.
Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.