Reality TV has come a long way since Granada Television broadcast the “Seven Up” series in 1964. The documentary brought together 20 children to the London Zoo under the guidance of director Paul Almond. Michael Apted, who had been a researcher, took over as the director. Apted has returned to check back with the original children as they reach 56 in “56 Up” which will open at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and the Town Center 5 in Irvine next weekend (25 January 2013), but opens at the Landmark Nuart on 18 January 2013.
The original documentary (available in a 39-minute format on Netflix) was in grainy black and white film. The original premise was that even in the 1960s, the British class system was so rigid that few would be able to break out of it.
“Why do we bring these children together? Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The union leader and the business executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.” Notice they said England and not Britain and that seems to automatically exclude Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The study was limited in other ways. Out of the 20, only 14 were followed: Bruce Balden, Jackie Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Susan Davis, Charles Furneaux, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Suzanne Lusk and Tony Walker.
Three of the boys were from the same prep school in a wealthy part of town (Andrew, Charles and John). Bruce also attended a prestigious boarding school. Suzanne was also from a wealthy family. She was one of only four girls chosen for the project. The other three were from the same primary school (Sue, Jackie and Lynn).
Tony was from the East End of London and remained working class. Symon and Paul were at a charity-based boarding school. Symon was the only non-white person. His father was black and out of the picture.
Neil and Peter attended the same middle-class Liverpool suburban school.
The children were, with the exception of one person, all white and all from Christian backgrounds. There were only four girls. Race, sexism and religious freedom were not well addressed in this series. That might be a bit off-putting for those of us who are neither white nor Christian nor male.
Still, it becomes something like a visual journal, almost predicting the current trend in vlogs, yet these kids and their parents aren’t so media-savvy. There’s a naturalness, an air of honesty and innocence that we see in the first of the series “Seven Up” and we see that to a certain extent in “56 Up.”
There’s a bit of promotion there. Peter had dropped out of the series at “28 Up” but returns to promote his band. He’s a guy who’s having those middle-age dreams.
The format is every seven years, the subjects are given a two-day interview that takes about six hours. The current film was offered on TV as three one-hour episodes. We get a condensed version, yet still this is reality TV at its best.
Roger Ebert called the Up Series “an inspired, almost noble use of the film medium” and one supposes that might also apply to the TV series. Of course, Apted hasn’t just been waiting around to for these moments in the lives of these ordinary British people. He’s also made some remarkable films along the way, including “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “The World is Not Enough,” and “Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
These movies capture what we or our parents were and what we have been or will likely become. It’s a shame, something that Apted has admitted, that more girls were not included in the initial group. Yet the initial choices reveal where the concerns of the British at the time. Even if you haven’t been following the Up Series, the movie cuts back to the past for comparisons between yesteryear and today. The Up Series shows us one good use of TV and film and might help you put your own life into perspective.