56 Up

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In our typical kamikaze fashion, on Sunday and Monday CR and I watched the entire Up series: (7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up and 49 Up) then went to the IFC Center on Tuesday to see 56 Up. I’d never heard of the damn thing until a few days ago; now it seems to have taken over my life.

The series began with a 1964 television documentary which interviewed fourteen 7 year old British school children from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds, representing them as “the executive and the shop steward of the year 2000″. Every seven years they go back and check in on them all. Only one of them appears to have dropped out permanently (and that remains to be seen). A very few of the others have sat out the odd year or two. Born in the late 1950s, they are now knocking on the door of old age, and we are now in the unique position of being able to watch entire lives unfold in fast motion, like that time-lapse film The Secret Life of Plants. C and I had the weird experience of having them pass us in the last couple of episodes. They had been younger than us the whole way; now that we’ve caught up to the present, they are several years older than us.

Of course, there is nothing secret about the lives of these 14 people, most of whom now claim to dislike the intrusion but participate nonetheless, presumably for the enjoyment of the millions of people who get to check in on them every seven years. I highly reccomend watching the series the way C and I did, by the way. While each succeeding episode does recap the previous ones, with each new chapter in the saga the flashbacks get necessarily truncated. The portrait is much more complete if you can see it all. Even so, most of the particpants complain that the portraits as they are presented are incomplete, and one can see the truth of it.

First of all, the films initially set out to prove a thesis: that people are largely trapped by economic class divisions and affiliations. The ominous music over the closing credits humorously telegraph that premise even now, when there is no terrifying future for it to portend. At any rate, by the third episode (21) many of the participants, from both ends of the spectrum, were already vocal in their dislike for being used as pawns in that game. John Brisby, caricatured as a snooty little Tory even from the outset (with his own help, it must be pointed out) is carefully shown only in the worst possible light in the first few episodes, as he foretells his own priveleged future and then goes on to live it. Only in the current episode (56) do we learn (clearly at his insistence) what we should have learned in 14 and 21 — that his father had died when he was 9, that his mother had to work to support him, and that he got through Oxford on a scholarship. Similarly, the three working class lasses, Sue, Jackie and Lynn, (mostly Jackie and Lynn) are already pissed by the 3rd episode at being made out to be objects of pity, which is not only humilating to them, but is patronizing and elitist. As is the original premise of the series, based on some idealistic, flawed and outmoded educational theory from the 1960s (and one I’m afraid many people still erroneously hold): the idea that everyone who comes through the education system has to come out as Bill Gates, and that anything else is a “failure”.

Of course, it’s only a failure if the kids who WANT to be like Bill Gates and have the brains and talent and drive to be so, don’t get to do so because of ossified class divisions, racism, etc. But as the years went on, events proved otherwise. Several of the participants wound up escaping their supposedly pre-determined fates. Nick Hitchon, a farm kid from Yorkshire who attended a one room schoolhouse, went to boarding school and then Oxford on academic scholarships and ended up being a nuclear physicist. Sue Davis, one of the working class girls, wound up being an administrator in the law school at Queen Mary University. And the most entertaining of them all, Tony Walker, a tough kid from London’s East End briefly realized his dream of being a jockey, then earned enough from driving a cab (and taking the occasional film role) to buy a vacation home in Spain. The only disappointed aspirant is Neil Hughes, a solidly middle class Liverpool kid who had starry-eyed dreams of attending Oxford, was rejected, and lapsed into an apathetic depression that lasted a couple of decades. He actually dropped to the very bottom of the economic ladder as a homeless wanderer living on the dole, but this appears to have been more due to his mental illness and his stubborn philosophical contrarianism than it was to any external factors.

Hughes, like the others, objects to his story being reduced to an economic plight. And the film-makers seem to have a rather plodding, grey sense of what “success” is. I can’t help thinking, yes, there is a box that’s trapping these people, not an economic one, but a psychological one…I can’t put my finger on the predominant factor. Is it that they are English? “Adults”? Creatures of modern society? Or is it just the way they are portrayed by the director (Michael Apted)? My biggest take away from the series is that most people are whopping bores. These people all seem very nice (even, as far as I’m concerned, the supposed villain of the piece John Higby), but they also (at least, as presented) seem like a bunch of drudges just serving out their time on this earth, each of them skating around on about 5% of their creative potential. I’m not talking about economics now, I’m talking about personality, psychology. All of them as seven year olds are charming, interesting, imaginative, playful, engaging. Some do parrot what their parents have told them to say, but for the most part there is an openness, a freedom, a sense of possibility. Already by age 14 you see them start to get seriously bogged down by society’s expectations. It’s like a mental trap, a box. One of the few among them who does anything interesting with his life, Bruce Balden, a mathematician who did some teaching in Bangladesh and in London’s East End slum, eventually drinks the Kool-Aid and becomes a teacher at an expensive private school, settling into a normal middle class English wife-and-two-kids with cricket and camping trips on weekends type existence.

The series’ portrait of English culture is rather damning: gardening and sports seem the extent of their enthusiasms, although that could be a by-product of the manner in which Apted is presenting them. Neil Hughes for example expressed concern that he is primarily being depicted in relationship to his rather minor employment (he has been a local council member, a sort of “dog catcher” level political position, for about 15 years). Whereas his intellectual life, the creative writing he has been doing most of his adulthood, has been completely off the radar as though it doesn’t count. (He was shown directing a local pantomime production in one of the earlier chapters, 35 or 42, but it seemed mainly included as an illustration of his mental illness). Similarly, John Higby is shown as an art collector, a lover of Bulgarian culture, and a classical piano player, but those are shown as manifestiations of his elitism. Refreshingly, one of the past participants Peter Davies has returned after a hiatus of several episodes — primarily to promote his music group The Good Intentions. I was beginning to think artists are as rare as hen’s teeth on this planet. Maybe they are.

As for most of the working class characters, for the most part they seem to be doing what they want to, and ought to be doing. Some people are just bricklayers — end of story. (And we must be quick to point out, the daughter of this story’s bricklayer Paul Kligerman became an archaeologist. Some people are just archaeologists). Whether some people are adequately paid for the labor they do, and should have job security, that’s a different question. Ideally life shouldn’t be a miserable struggle for the working class (which happens to be my original socio-economic class, incidentally). The most recent episodes have shown the impact of both Thatcherism and the last recession on many of the participants. Even the people at the top of the scale have had their worries.

At any rate, it has to be said that this film series is much better art than it is science. One does get wrapped up in these people’s lives, as one does in a soap opera. We inevitably compare ourselves to them. The new episode is sobering — they’re suddenly where I’ll be in 8 1/2 years, and since most of them are bald, wrinkled, pot-bellied and have liver spots and arthritis, it doesn’t exactly inspire me to do a jig (although I may as well while I still can).

But if this were a science experiment, you would say that there needs to be a broader selection of test subjects. For example, there were only two middle class kids in the whole selection (the Liverpool boys Neil and Peter). Four of the others were upper class; the other eight were working class or poor. There is only one “cultural other”, the mixed-race orphanage kid Symon, so we don’t learn much about what impact racism had, if any (Symon’s always worked as a manual laborer, although he expressed interest at one point in being an electrical engineer). And there are only four girls in the study, none of whom had from the outset what might be called “career aspirations”, although two of the working class women made decent careers as opportunities presented themselves, one as a librarian, the other, as we said, as a college administrator. The upper class girl Suzie became a housewife. The third working class girl, Jackie, one of the most charming and entertaining of all the children, had some clerical jobs but has lived for several years on disability due to a medical condition.

The most telling aspect I think has been the boycott of the series since 28 Up of Charles Furnaux, the third “upper crust” boy. He went into journalism and wound up being a documentary producer for the BBC. An inital thought is that perhaps he wants to avoid a professional conflict of interest, not to mention perpetual harranging by his colleagues at work. But another thought is that, as a journalist and documentary-maker…he simply doesn’t like the way this one is being made.

At any rate, flawed though it is, I’m obviously hooked. And since I’m not too much younger than the subjects of the movie, I may well be hooked for life. I’m already impatient to see the next episode, but it’s not for another seven years!

56 Up is playing in New York at the IFC Center. Tickets and showtimes are here. All the earlier episodes are available to stream through Netflix.

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