‘56 Up,’ the latest in Michael Apted’s series, confronts middle age and what it means to make a life

The subjects of Michael Apted's '56 Up.' (Courtesy First Run Features)
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There have been complaints, I have noticed, made in anticipation of the release of 56 Up, the eighth installment in Britain’s ongoing experiment in social portraiture, that there’s not much new to learn about the half-dozen or so subjects Michael Apted has been following, at seven year intervals, for half a century.

Admit it, goes a typical remark, this was all more interesting during the years inevitably and literally marked by change. Now they’re all middle-aged, with nothing much to show for it. The implication lingers: story’s over.

It’s safe to assume, I think, that the people making those remarks were born after the series began filming, as I was, and watched the first six or seven installments, as I did, in concentrated batches, skipping through decades like so many video discs. Whole lives seem to pass before us in a matter of hours; impatience for the good parts is natural enough. But the complaint doubles as a critique of the Up format: shaped by concerns about class and social determinism, the series is itself destined to reduce its subjects to clichés about childhood, youth, adulthood, and now middle-age.

And indeed, these are not in-depth biographies of thirteen British baby boomers with pointedly disparate economic backgrounds. Any of its subjects, several of whom have dropped out and then back in over the years and all of whom we know only by first name, will tell you that. “It’s not a picture of me,” one of them observes this time around, “but it’s a picture of somebody.”

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The Up project was conceived to render and compare a small bunch of somebodies in broad strokes. Some Victorian residue clings to the idea that a life should be determined by accidents of birth or the marriage one makes. But there is also something of the modern fondness for defining life in terms of milestones nailed and five-year plans in the structure of the series, which mixes pop philosophy (“Give me a child until he is seven,” the voice-of-God narrator intones in the first program, “and I will give you the man”) and social studies with a healthy dose of voyeurism. As much as they sketch the contours of how life was lived by a certain demographic in a certain time, the Up films document the way stories were told at the dawn of the media age.

The series traditions are enforced in 56 Up, beginning with the participants’ ritual statements of reluctance and capitulation. Series dropout Peter, last seen ripping on the Thatcher regime at 28 and now a government worker, admits his renewed participation is mainly a means of publicizing his new band. Suzy, the well-bred rebel-turned-cheerful housewife, compares the series to a bad book she’s compelled to finish.

Some of the most fascinating reflections on the forces that have shaped the subjects’ lives from within and without have to do with this ambivalence at being documented, represented, judged from a retrospective distance. Here as always Apted jumps between his subjects’ variously aged selves with hypnotic, occasionally ruthless dexterity, mapping new narrative sequences and creating damning or salubrious conversations. Where we might project our hopes and disappointments onto various subjects at various stages in our lives, the Up series offers its participants coldly struck but irrefutable evidence of their former selves.

Several admit they no longer recognize themselves at seven, but only one disowns his buoyant mini-me. This is Neil, the dark and necessary heart of a group shown here anyway to have passed through life’s tests, as articulated by Apted’s marriage-, children-, and income-focused questions, with flying or at least flickering colors.

At seven, Neil was among the most exuberant of the kids, a charming Liverpool lad with a high-voltage flop of hair and a square-toothed, friendly-muppet smile. Unlike his comically posh counterparts John and Andrew, whose futures unfolded almost exactly as they (or more likely their parents) predicted, down to the Cambridge prefecture, at age seven, things didn’t turn out the way Neil hoped. Shut out of Oxford, he dropped out of another university and is shown homeless and wandering the Shetlands at 28.

Plagued by what he calls “a nervous complaint” since 16, when Apted asks the 28-year-old where he sees himself seven years down the line, Neil, his fretful rocking barely contained by the frame, is piercingly frank: “I could think of all sorts of things I’d like to be doing; the real question is what am I likely to be doing?”

Though careers and benefits cut short by post-crash austerity measures forms one theme in 56 Up, along with aging parents, dependent adult kids, dreams deferred or unfulfilled, and second tries at wedded bliss, Neil’s story chalks one up for Britain’s thickly webbed social safety nets. Not homeless but lodged in a London council flat at 35, Neil went on to a career in municipal politics and is now a lay minister at his local church. (A notable number of the participants work(ed) in public or social service.)

Powerfully dignified and self-aware, Neil acknowledges that he has refused treatment for his mental issues but shuts down any further questions. “It’s not for this program to expose my private feelings,” he says. It might have been for the program to help Neil achieve his dream of becoming a published author, however. As he suggests with some bitterness, the public was not interested enough in his private feelings to seek them out in anything more than tightly bound and mediated form, once a decade.

It’s for those moments and many others that I found the stories revisited and refreshed in 56 Up anything but stagnant. If the lives it profiles feel settled, the questions troubling the Up project only deepen. Is Apted God or just a prying aunt? Is the Jesuit quote underlying the whole thing pompous and cruel or cruelly accurate? A particularly British mixture of bureaucratic and artistic enterprise, the films favor statistics over psychology, perseverance over insight, a bird’s eye over the secret heart. In this way their somebodies tell the story of us, how we wish to be seen and remembered, perhaps even known, and the many ways in which we’ll fail.