Inspired by the Jesuit saying “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the British documentary “7 Up” was supposed to be a one-off snapshot of class-torn England in 1963. The idea was to ask a group of 7-year-old children from various backgrounds – posh, poor, urban, rural – about their hopes and plans for the future and film their responses. This would give viewers “a glimpse of England in the year 2000,” said the trailer. “The shop steward and the executive in the year 2000 are now 7 years old.”
Filmed in black-and-white, “7 Up” featured 14 bright faces and piping voices. You could almost already tell whose dreams would come true.
Michael Apted, then 22, was a researcher on “7 Up.” In 1970, he was asked if he’d like to do a follow-up. He has since directed all the other films in what’s now known as the Up Series: 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 56 and the latest, “63 Up.” He has said, “When I film ’84 Up,’ I’ll be 99!” It seems more likely that “63 Up,” an Oscar contender for Best Documentary Feature, will be the final installment. Apted is now 78. Of the original 14 subjects, one has died. Two have dropped out. One has throat cancer.
Another has chronic mental health problems. At seven, Neil was an adorable Liverpudlian lad who wanted to be an astronaut. By “28 Up,” he was homeless. In “63 Up,” he’s a Liberal Democratic council member and a lay minister. Seven years from now, who knows?
Apted has had a successful run as a director of Hollywood films: “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorky Park,” “The World Is Not Enough.” But the Up Series is his legacy and his towering achievement, arguably one of the greatest achievements in filmmaking, period.
The first reality series, and the most real ever made, it’s a film franchise with no CGI and no superheroes – except maybe Bruce, already idealistic and compassionate at 7, who grew up to be a teacher, spent his sabbatical in Bangladesh and later helped Neil find a home. Or Lynn, a lifelong librarian.
What started out as a political statement became something much larger, enormous in scope and profound in meaning. The Up Series is about life itself: human striving and survival, dignity and disappointment, joy and grief, adaptability and determination. And the overarching importance of family.
The series has its flaws, the main one from today’s perspective being its lack of diversity. Among the cohort, there are 10 men, only four women, and aside from Bruce’s students, just one person of color. Apted himself has called this a “horrible error.” But nobody saw it that way in the mid-1960s.
As the series progressed, it featured more of the men’s wives, including strong and wise women. And it made space for one of the women, Jackie, to blast Apted for his lack of awareness. “I just didn’t feel that you had any idea of the changing role of women in the U.K.,” she says. “You asked us the most mundane, domestic questions.”
You don’t need to have seen any of the previous installments to connect immediately with the new film. Each looks back at the lives of the subjects, with clips from the past. They grow up, go to university or find jobs, get married, struggle, succeed, fail, adjust. They are amazingly resilient, especially Paul and Symon, who started out in a charity home, left there by their parents. Soon after “7 Up,” Paul’s father took him to Australia (and put him in another children’s home). But Paul and Symon managed to keep in touch and stay friends. They seem like good-hearted men, ones you’d want to know.
By “63 Up,” some of the cohort have grandchildren. Parents and partners have died. They have voted “leave” or “remain” for Brexit – and one who voted “leave” is having second thoughts. They have witnessed and experienced the effects of austerity and the rise of the gig economy; Tony, who has made a good living as a London black cab driver, saw his income drop by a third with the coming of Uber. Several fear their children and grandchildren may not reach their levels of success.
Apted is the interviewer for this film, as he has been for all but “7 Up.” You don’t see him, but you hear his voice, and the subjects call him Michael. The camera focuses on the subjects’ faces, often in close-up. Not all of the subjects enjoy these septennial get-togethers. Some actively dread them. But Apted treats everyone with tenderness and respect.
Some are more frank and open with him than others. Some hold him at arm’s length, having their own reasons for returning to the series. Litigator John, a member of the Queen’s Counsel, wants people to know about his charity work in Bulgaria. Peter wants to promote his folk-music band.
Appearing in the Up Series has made them all minor celebrities. They are recognized in the streets. They have been hounded in social media for expressing unpopular opinions. Cab driver Tony tells of driving astronaut Buzz Aldrin and being approached by an autograph seeker. The individual wanted Tony’s autograph, not the one of the man who had walked on the moon.
“63 Up” opens Friday at the Edina Cinema in an exclusive Twin Cities engagement. FMI including trailer, times and tickets. Drop everything to see it.
Holiday pick: Poinsettias in the Conservatory
The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in Como Park is famous for its flower shows. But none is as popular as the Holiday Flower Show, which fills the Sunken Garden with hundreds of poinsettias. You can see it free daily through Jan. 12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Sunday, Dec. 15, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., you can take your holiday photos inside the Conservatory before it opens to the public. It’ll cost you $5 per person. Bring your own camera.