By Dennis Hartley
(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 2, 2013)
Have you ever stumbled across one of your own childhood photos and mused, “How could this grinning idiot have not seen a future in computer science?” Or, “Pardon me, but…have we met?” (“If I’d only known then what I know now…”). The tendency many of us have to brood about a life tragically misspent with each successive birthday is bad enough…but imagine doing it on national TV, whilst thousands of voyeuristic strangers look on, parsing your every thought and action. If that reminds you of The Truman Show, you’re not far off the mark. In 1964, a UK television film series-cum-social experiment kicked off with Paul Almond’s 7 Up, a documentary profiling fourteen 7 year-olds from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, sharing their dreams and aspirations. 7 years later the same subjects appeared in 7 Plus Seven, with director Michael Apted taking over the helm. Seven year updates continued with 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up and 49 Up.
Which brings us to Apted’s latest installment in the series, 56 Up; like its 7 predecessors, it has been picked up for a theatrical run. First, it’s nice to see that everyone is still above ground (currently being 56 and ¾ myself, I find that somehow…reassuring). This is not to say that the participants haven’t been put through life’s wringer in one way or another. Health issues, multiple marriages and financial problems abound. Some are doing better than 7 years ago, some worse; most maintain the status quo. Some are happy, some not so much.
The most fascinating character continues to be Liverpool native Neil Hughes, who is like a real life version of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. A charming and funny little kid in 7 Up, he was a homeless, mentally troubled university dropout by 21 Up. Over the next two installments, he remained directionless and homeless, moving first to Scotland, then to the Shetlands. By 42 Up, however, he had discovered a knack for politics, in which he remains ensconced.
In this age of dime-a-dozen reality TV shows and smart phone attention spans, the idea of a filmed series where the audience waits seven years between “episodes” may seem trite; perhaps downright anachronistic. But if you think about it for 10 seconds, I suspect that sitting down to watch any number of episodes of, let’s say, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, over any number of years, would not likely provide you with much keen insight into the human condition (it’s more likely a roomful of monkeys with typewriters could eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare…and in less time).
At least here, there were/are noble intentions; and you certainly cannot say that Apted, having devoted 40 years of his life to the project doesn’t have “the vision thing”. Not all participants share in the altruism; in 56 Up some interviewees continue to badger the director to hang it up and be done with it. Granted, 10 to 15 minutes of screen time, every 7 years cannot give you the whole picture of someone’s life, and that’s one of the primary issues in question.
As far as the “social experiment” aspect of the project is concerned, that has been off the table for some time now, especially when you consider that the participants have become celebrities in the U.K. So it appears that over the years, the “experiment” has become less Margaret Mead and more Andy Warhol. Indeed, one gentleman, who has declined to participate since his strident anti-Thatcher rants in 28 Up made him a pariah in the British press and led to his resignation as a teacher, makes no effort to sugarcoat his cynicism. “I’ve only agreed to come back” he tells Apted, “…because I want to promote my band.”
Still, for the most part, everyone is game. There’s a palpable sense of poignancy this time , since Apted has amassed a sizable archive of clips for each interviewee, from all periods of their lives (he makes good use of the flashbacks and flash-forwarding). The lives depicted here may not be glamorous or exciting, but most people’s lives aren’t, are they? And as cliché as this sounds, it all seems to boil down to that most basic of human needs: to love or be loved. You know what? I’ll bet that’s what was making me smile in my childhood photo.