Nine instalments. Fifty-five years. One astonishing snapshot of life as it happens.
Before reality television filled our screens, and before long-running franchises became standard cinema fare, the Up documentaries turned the cameras towards 14 British seven-year-olds, explored their dreams and realities, and followed up again and again at seven-year intervals.
Driven by researcher-turned-director Michael Apted, the resulting series is an astonishing work of factual filmmaking – a longitudinal study unparalleled on the small screen. Originally inspired by the Jesuit motto “give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” and framed as an enquiry into class divisions, it has questioned rather than proved that idea.
Kids grow into teens and then adults, life’s ups and downs come their way, and viewers watch, checking in at ages 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56 and now 63. The latest chapter, the three-part 63 Up, airs on SBS and SBS On Demand from 10 June.
From wide-eyed declarations to wistful regrets, the Up series has seen it all – and, in the process, audiences have too. The epic saga isn’t just a record of its subjects, however, but of their country, the world and of societal change. There’s nothing quite like watching ordinary people weather whatever comes their way to put life into context, as these seven standout Up moments make plain.
Watching kids say the darnedest things has filled many hours of television, but Seven Up! ranges beyond the easy and obvious. Introducing the 14 children who’ll claim the camera’s attention for more than half a century, it’s a snapshot of innocent proclamations that often prove wise, and the entire 40-minute documentary is thoroughly life-affirming.
“Well, my girlfriend is in Africa, and I don’t think I’ll have another chance of seeing her again…”
Some, like Bruce, have already realised that nothing lasts in life. Others, such as schoolgirls Jackie, Lynn and Sue, have gleaned social hierarchies. Seeing them respond to the camera is like seeing society in a microcosm.
Only one of the Up series’ subjects has chosen to cut ties and never return: Charles Furneaux. He wanted to attend Oxford, but ended up moving into journalism. In 21 Up, his last appearance, his resistance to being in front of the camera, and to the franchise’s format, couldn’t be more evident. And yet, he perhaps took the documentaries’ ethos to heart more than anyone else. As a film and television producer, including on the applauded Touching the Void, he’s still committed to chronicling reality and sharing it with the world – just not his own.
Symon’s overall journey
While Seven Up! gathered kids of different backgrounds – which was one of Apted’s jobs on the initial series, before moving to the director’s chair with 7 Plus Seven – Symon Basterfield’s tough upbringing in a children’s home always stood out. That said, there’s nothing more life-affirming than seeing someone turn their adversity into a strength, and using their experience to help others.
As revealed in 42 Up, Symon became a devoted foster parent, helping kids in need. It’s a touching turn to his tale, as exemplified by his evident passion for the job.
Sue’s university career
Along with Jackie and Lynn, Sue Davis hails from the series’ working-class crowd, with the three originally seen attending the same primary school. While the majority of the franchise’s subjects have disproven the underlying thesis that a child at seven years old embodies the person they’ll become, Sue’s path ranks among the most rewarding.
Much of the minutiae is standard, including marriage, kids, divorce and new love – a pattern that recurs for many. But seeing Sue secure a job as a university administrator, despite never having attended university herself, is a clear badge of honour.
In 21 Up, East End’s Jackie Bassett had already been married – and, in one of the series’ pivotal scenes, Apted asks if she might’ve tied the knot too young. Over the years, she had children, divorced, remarried, divorced again and raised her kids as a single mother, with that loaded question hanging over the series.
In 49 Up, she fights back, calling out the filmmaker for underestimating her. While Apted hasn’t been shy about the difficulties of maintaining objectivity over the course of the franchise, Jackie’s backlash is a powerful moment, and a reminder that nothing is ever what it seems.
Neil’s philosophical reflections
If there’s an overall message to the Up series and its now five-decade chronicle, it’s one both obvious and profound. Little turns out as planned, as everyone knows, and as Neil Hughes conveys so perfectly in 56 Up. He was once a Liverpool boy dreaming of being an astronaut, then segued from homelessness in his twenties, to local government in his forties, to the church in his fifties.
Looking back, Neil draws upon philosophy: “I think it was Albert Camus who said that life is what happens while you’re waiting for something else.”
Tony’s Buzz Aldrin moment
He dreamed of being a jockey and dabbled with acting (including being an extra on EastEnders), before making a living as a taxi driver. Tony Walker’s tale might seem ordinary, however, one encounter demonstrates why that idea – that all of the Up series’ subjects lead ordinary lives – has always remained part of its appeal.
In 56 Up, Tony recalls picking up Buzz Aldrin as a passenger, with his cab approached by a fan while they’re driving. It wasn’t the astronaut who attracted attention, but Tony himself, showing just how much the series has meant to viewers.
63 Up airs on SBS and SBS On Demand from Monday, June 10.
Watch all the previous instalments of the acclaimed documentary series now on SBS On Demand.