When I first was trying to figure out how I would sum this up, I said “probably the most ambitious documentary project ever.” I should have said “in English” as this idea was actually not invented by this series. Rather, the Germans beat the British to it by a few years. Due to typical Anglo documentary chauvinism, nobody seems to know about this so we all just assume this is the trailblazing documentary. (There are numerous imitators). But given that I can’t watch the German series – it seems basically impossible to watch – it’s still the best I can do for a movie series that follows real people throughout there lives. And as the first version of this in English, it is indeed a landmark.
So, what is it? It’s a film series that follows 14 British people from age 7 to age 63, checking in with them every 7 years. It began as an episode of a TV show but then turned into its own thing by the second installment.
I have periodically envisioned a game while watching this, a sort of “Up Series Bingo” in which you predict what will and won’t happen to these kids in the first episodes and see who gets it right. That might strike some as crass but it’s all in the past now. And I do think, given the show’s theme of the essence of the person existing at age 7, it would help dispel that.
But I never did get around to creating a spreadsheet of the game. So, instead, I’d say mentally record what you think will happen to each kid. It will make the whole experience more, um, fun, I guess.
One thing that’s important to know: this series began before VHS so each and every episode after the first (even the ones in the 21st century) refer back to the previous episodes. This can be a little repetitive and so taking breaks between episodes is probably a good idea.
“Seven Up!” (1964, Paul Almond) – 7/10
This TV program, which actually started the Up documentaries, is a dated and kind of simple attempt to capture the socioeconomic differences among British children and how those differences may affect their lives down the road. The film oversimplifies the social psychological / sociological research of the day but it is compelling to see how class differences already exist at age 7.
It’s too bad the production has dated so much.
In 2022 I watched it again in order to watch the rest of the series and I felt a little kinder.
7 Plus Seven (1970, Michael Apted)
The original TV episode would have been a curious artifact without the further films. This is the first film that shows the potential of the series. The people have already started changing or hardening, depending on the person. Though many of the kids felt like little adults in the original TV episode, in this film they feel like they are the people they will be. I already want to bet on who is going to be terrible as an adult.
Watching this one, I was excited for the next one.
21 Up (1977, Michael Apted)
This film, the first one where they’re all adults, really gives you a sense of how this project is going to feel. 13 years later, we feel like we know these people now, and our feelings about each our crystalizing. Even more than with the previous film, it feels like you know how some of these lives might go. (That ought to just make the unexpected more surprising. At least I hope.) But, already, some lives have started to run in ways you wouldn’t expect.
The series is starting to feel really important.
28 Up (1984, Michael Apted)
At this point I stopped writing down individual observations. The whole thing should only be experienced as a whole, given the changes that happen in these people’s lives and how those changes make you think about your own life and your own choices.
35 Up (1991, Michael Apted)
No individual notes recorded.
42 Up (1998, Michael Apted)
The most shocking development of the series, which I won’t spoil for you.
49 Up (2005, Michael Apted)
Why are there so many 49-year-old grandparents in this film? What is wrong with these people?
56 Up (2012, Michael Apted)
A poignant one (though they’re all poignant).
63 Up (2019, Michael Apted)
The most elegiac of the series, it sure feels like Apted had some idea he wouldn’t be able to make another. He asks the participants more directly about how they feel about the whole thing. And one of them points out a major flaw that somehow neither of us noticed.
Despite it not being the first one, it is still one of the great documentary works in English. Prior to the dawn of reality TV – and, really, prior to home movie cameras – there was nothing remotely like this. And, unlike reality TV, these people aren’t acting and actually many of them are unhappy about participating.
It’s kind of incredible to watch these people grow old. As they discuss in the films, we feel like we know them and we start to really care about them. At times, it’s incredibly moving.
But, beyond that, we really see the full human journey (or most of it) lived out over 56 years and how universal it is, regardless of class, gender or nationality. These people all grew up in the UK in the ’60s, but they could easily be people anywhere.
Anyway, it’s a revealing, captivating series that is really worth the investment of time.
And one of the great documentary projects in English film history.