Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: ‘Up Series’ Presents True Human Drama

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday October 06, 2006

Often the most compelling dramas are not found in novels or Hollywood movies, but in everyday life. This is the charm and allure of The Up Series, an extraordinary documentary film project now in its fifth decade. 

Begun in 1964 as a program for England’s Granada Television, the first film in the series, 7 Up, featured interviews with a group of 7-year-old children in an effort to catch “a glimpse of England in the year 2000.”  

Michael Apted worked as a researcher on the first program and, with the second program, 7 Plus 7, broadcast in 1971, he took over the project, directing another film every seven years to follow up on the lives of the original 14 participants. The latest film in the series, 49 Up, opens today (Friday) at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. 

The project was begun all those years ago with very definite ideas in mind. The children were selected from various strata of English society with the intent of showing how one’s background may determine one’s future. “Give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the man,” the narrator intones, and far more often than necessary. 

The premise may have been a bit contrived—even the 14-year-olds ridicule it for its simplistic approach in 7 Plus 7—and often it seems that Apted is far too determined to make the subsequent films conform to the expectations of the first. It might have helped to have had a sociologist involved with the formulation of the questions in order to give them a little more weight and validity; and perhaps someone with a background in therapy or counseling could have posed the questions in place of the director, someone with a better sense of how to communicate with people, to demonstrate the necessary curiosity and compassion. For Apted is often incapable of keeping the questions neutral or of phrasing his queries in such a way as to invite discussion. There are moments where his clumsy comments reveal as much about his own perceptions as those of the participants. In 7 Plus 7 he asks a trio of 14-year-old girls if they worry about the “danger” of finding themselves married and homebound with children when they’re in their early 20s. In 28 Up he asks a man if he’s worried about his sanity, and seven years later, when the man is 35 and still struggling to find his way in life, Apted asks if he has given up, to which the man snaps back “My life’s not over yet!”  

Perhaps this is a deliberate technique on Apted’s part, but if so it sometimes comes across as insensitive and rude, even if it now and then produces a valuable insight. At other times Apted seems too intent on validating the project’s original premises, attempting to draw definitive cause-and-effect links between the circumstances of childhood and adulthood. In effect, Apted, though he keeps himself off-camera, becomes a character in the drama, his leading questions often belying his own prejudices and preconceived notions. 

But these are minor flaws. Taken as a whole, the series is probably among the greatest documentaries ever made. And yes, there is much truth and value to the film’s premises, and to its aspirations toward sociological significance, and often its hypotheses are validated as children who seemed destined for a particular line of work or station in life indeed end up fulfilling those expectations. But the series is full of surprises, and overall it works best as simple human drama: Shamelessly cute 7-year-olds grow into awkward, gangly 14-year olds; budding, passionate adults of 21 become 28-year-olds settling into careers and families. The participants are honest, intelligent and interesting and their stories invite compassion; we take pleasure in their triumphs, we shed tears for their tragedies. We see them face rejection, take on new jobs and careers, search for love and companionship; we see them start families, raise children, and deal with the deaths of their own parents; we see them struggle to maintain marriages and face the setbacks of divorce; we see plans laid and hopes dashed, and then we see them rise again to rebuild their lives.  

The project itself has been something of a mixed blessing for its participants. One man even describes it as a bit of poison he is forced to swallow every seven years. Some opt out of later films, sometimes to return later, sometimes not. We don’t get the impression that any of them are participating in the project for the pleasure of being on television or on the big screen; they seem to participate out of a sense of duty, and not to the filmmakers, but rather to their fellow Englishmen. For even when they question the value of the project, they seem to evince a knowledge that their stories may in some way shed light for others on worthwhile issues.  

All the films leading up to 49 Up are available on DVD from First Run Features ( But you don’t necessarily need to have seen every film to appreciate the drama of the later productions. Each film features plenty of footage from the previous films to at least present the arc of each life. 

It must have been a wonderful experience for the original audiences to see this series begin and watch as these lives unfurled over the decades, to have grown up with these men and women and checked in with them every seven years. Undoubtedly many have found kinship with these 14 people as they have made their way through life. But to see the entire series, in sequence and all at once, is a revelation; full and rich human lives unfold in one film after another, the participants aging 40 years in just a few days’ time. The haughty are humbled, the meek gain confidence, the lost become found, the pampered lose everything. These are true human dramas, moving and fascinating, and unfolding in real time. 


49 UP 

Directed by Michael Apted. XXXX minutes. Playing at Shattuck Cinemas. 



Six Films by Granada Television and Michael Apted. $64.97. 


Photograph Courtesy First Run Features 

Tony, a London taxi driver, is one of 14 participants in 49 Up, the latest in the long-running documentary project known as The Up Series.