Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Up Series Continues : 56 Up

I had an unexpected treat from Monday evening's TV - PBS showed, in full, the most recent episode of what I've often described as "the best thing ever on TV": The Up Series. I wrote about the series in 2010 after having purchased a DVD set of all the programmes in the series to that point. The best way to explain is to copy my 2010 post below, and say that the latest episode, 56 Up shown on PBS this week, brings the original group of 7 Up kids well into middle age.

I was happy to see that no dreadful calamities had befallen any of the group, and though circumstances weren't vastly different from those in the previous, 49 Up, episode it was good to see that the group was each coping well with any difficulties brought about by financial meltdowns, austerity and suchlike.

A couple of the original group members who had declined to appear in some of the previous episodes returned for reasons of their own - to promote an album of their music in one case, and to publicise a charitable organisation aiding the people of Bulgaria in another.

Evidence of the dreaded British class system, so apparent in the early episodes has weakened but still remains. Several of the group complained that the shows had not portrayed them in full - but really, how could it ever have been possible to do so? Those complaints annoyed me, more than anything else in any of the shows. Possibly prima-donna mode is now creeping in? Michael Apted, the show's producer says that he intends, God willing, to do a 63 Up episode, in due course. I hope I shall still be around to witness that.

I'd still love to have some of the birth dates of the group members.

Anyway, here's my 2010 post, again. For any passing reader who'd like to read the few comments to it, here's the link: Seven Up & The Up Series: Saturn Cycles

Seven Up & The Up Series: Saturn Cycles

A fascinating example of what is now known as "reality TV" began as a single documentary during early years of television in Britain. In 1964 Granada Television produced 7 Up. It has slowly grown into The Up Series. The original programme was followed, at intervals, by 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up 42 Up and 49 UP. From which list the mathematically inclined reader will deduce that the programmes had some connection with 7-year cycles. Sure enough. The programmes followed the lives of a group of British children, all born in or near 1957, from age 7 onward into adulthood, at 7-year intervals. The children came from very different backgrounds, wealthy upper-class, local authority children's home, urban, rural, and much inbetween.

The "Up" series was based on the Jesuit motto "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." In tandem with that premise, the shows aimed to show that, like it or not, the British class system remained largely in place.

I recently bought the DVD set of the full series to date. I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing some episodes again after many years, and discovering, at last, what has happened to the group during later, unseen, episodes. My American husband has found the films fascinating in their Britishness, yet not completely unrelatable to life in the USA. People are people are people!

Astrologically inclined readers will already be thinking: Saturn! For a rundown on the 7-year cycles of Saturn see Jim D'Amato's article The Saturn Cycles. It has been a source of mild frustration to me that I can't know the birth data of those involved in the series, for this would be a wonderful opportunity to study natal charts with life patterns. However, these people have probably been exposed to enough already without a nosey blogger like myself adding to their discomfort. Even so - it'd be such an interesting exercise.

Respected movie critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the DVD set:
They (the programmes) also strike me as an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium. No other art form can capture so well the look in an eye, the feeling in an expression, the thoughts that go unspoken between the words. To look at these films, as I have every seven years, is to meditate on the astonishing fact that man is the only animal that knows it lives in time.

Paul Almond, a Canadian television and motion picture screenwriter, director and producer was 7 Up's creator. His English assistant and researcher Michael Apted (Sun in Aquarius)soon took over from him and has continued directing the programmes. He was involved in the original selection of the children. The kids were chosen, often with advice from their schools, on ability to express themselves well and be reasonably outgoing. It's remarkable that the group chosen has provided such varied and fascinating life stories. One of the group has emigrated to Australia, one to the USA, one likely to move to Spain. Most have married and have families, some have divorced - some re-married. Two teach, one dropped out of society completely but later found a way back, two practice law, one is a taxi driver, one is a fork-lift truck driver, one works in the construction industry, one for the BBC, one is a children's librarian, one a secretary.....and so on.

Class - the curse of the British - raises its ugly head often in the series. Some of the most amusing interviews, early on, are with priggish and pretentious little 7-year old boys and a girl from upper-class, wealthy backgrounds and expensive private schools. Some of these kids mature and develop rather more compassionately than others, and here lies much of the programme's fascination. Watching early episodes, it was easy to make assumptions about the futures of the boys and girls. Those assumptions often turned out to be very wide of the mark. The gorgeously bright and lively 7-year old Liverpudlian who seemed like the star of the first show, but in adulthood became an anti-social depressive. A development that shocked many viewers. The shy country lad brought up on an isolated farm in the Yorkshire Dales became a nuclear physicist and Professor at a university in the USA.

It's a sobering experiment to look at one's own life in 7-year slices. In my own case, until my 28-Up, or even 35-Up years, I hadn't got into a groove at all. My life didn't properly fit me before then. I'd have made a very boring subject.

One of the best reviews of the DVD set, other than Roger Ebert's, linked above is this one by Bill Gibron at DVD Talk. In his last paragraph he says:

All plaudits and platitudes aside, The Up Series is phenomenal. There is nothing else like it in the history of cinema, both in the documentary and straight narrative format. It proves the age-old adage that truth is stranger and more dramatic than fiction, and as a film series, it never once fails to move and manipulate you. Apted has plans in place to keep the series going on indefinitely – or as long as there are enough participants willing and brave enough to open up their lives to the invasive invitation over the next few decades – and the possibilities seem endless. Just like life. Indeed, The Up Series is really a devastating portrait of life as it is lived.

In the last episode of the series so far, 49Up, some of the participants began to air their grievances about the programmes. One indicated that this would be her last: "This is me - I'm done!" she said candidly, but without rancour. Others hinted that the intrusion into their privacy every 7 years was becoming unwelcome. One was very vocal about her lack of control. One, rather scathingly, likened the programmes to Big Brother or I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (the same one who "couldn't see the point of it all" at age 7.) He had only taken part in some of the later episodes to publicise his charity though - so actually the programmes had a point for him, if he could manage the humility to see it! Only one participant said the programmes were "important", even though he found the early ones painful, reminding him of his roots and homeland, which he misses. Two of the original group dropped out completely in their 20s, for their own reasons. Others of the group seem accepting and have taken it all in their stride.

It'll be interesting to see whether a 56Up does emerge in the next few years, and how many of the original group are still willing to take part.


mike said...

Yes, Twilight, an enjoyable PBS documentary series! I saw the 42 and 49 series the years prior to this last Monday's 57 episode.

I do have two criticisms, however. It was difficult for me to totally interpret the dialect-accent of several individuals...I've been suffering mold allergies and my ears have been a bit "full", even with a Clariton antihistamine regimen. I don't recall this difficulty to this extent in the previous two episodes that I've seen. Subtitles would have been appreciated by me!

My other criticism is the narrative direction...I would have liked more direct questions posed. The subjects were allowed to ramble a bit, though the rambling did reveal some tidbits. I suspect the interviews were meant to be less intrusive this time around and more respectful of privacy issues. It's hard for me to recall the details of the previous two episodes, but they seemed more directed...and, yes, some of the subjects complained. Can't win!

Again, it's hard for me to recall with any assurance, but I don't remember the previous episodes' subjects complaining as much about the politics and economy affecting their lives to the extent Britain's affairs affect them in this 57 episode. Major changes for some losing jobs or being removed from public assistance.

You've had several previous posts regarding nature-or-nurture. It is apparent through this documentary that the subjects coming from better economic and educational backgrounds fared better in later life. Those with better childhood status were able to receive advanced education...were therefore able to derive better incomes...were seemingly more satisfied with the current "57UP" situation. They had more life choices at this stage of their lives. They also appeared to be in better physical condition.

With few surprises, it does seem to me that a future outcome can be best determined by viewing the socioeconomic advantages of a child, rather than the child's desires expressed in words.

As an aside, it was just simply interesting to see how the generic human physically and mentally evolves during the aging process. When I meet an older individual, it is difficult for me to imagine how they must have physically looked 50 years prior. It was intriguing to see these subjects going through the aging process.

Twilight said...

mike ~ Oh good! I wondered whether this might fall on stony ground, I'm so pleased to know you've followed at least some of the later episodes. :-)

I've been a fan of this series from its earliest days. I well recall going into work the day after "7-Up"'s first showing on British TV, enthusiastically exchanging views on it with work friends. Having to wait 7 years for the next episode puts waiting a year or so for the next season of TV series such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men etc in the shade!

I missed out on a couple of the later 7-year episodes for one reason or another, but never forgot how fascinating I'd found the programmes, so invested in the DVD set a few years ago, to share the experience with my husband.

Like you, husband has difficulty with accents. I translate. I have to report that he went to sleep through much of 56 Up on Monday evening! He had quite enjoyed the DVD set a few years ago though....perhaps under pressure of my enthusiasm.
;-) I realise that really and truly this series applies to life in Britain, in the mid-20th to 21st centuries, its class and wealth divisions. You've found interest in it too, so perhaps its interest really is more universal than I suspected.

I think you're right, questions this time were definitely less direct, due to privacy considerations. Young families have grown and matured now, so their privacy had to be respected too. There are more than the original set of kids to consider.

So many elements of fascination can be found in the series. As you mentioned, the changes in physical appearance through the years; the way social and economic background has shaped the future for the "7 Up" kids.

There was a layer of extreme privilege which continued to be evident throughout. A secondary layer of "working class but comfortable" who, while reaching a decent and useful level of career would have had difficulty breaking into the top layer, even with university education.
Then there were the kids from a children's homes, orphans. They came out well, on the whole, after struggling. The lad who went to Australia did himself a big favour!

My favourite child, Neil, who came from a decent Liverpool background, a bright, lovely kid, somehow slipped into depression in young adulthood, but has managed come out of it, or at least to deal with it. That was the story which had touched and concerned me most of all. But even he complained a bit.

I guess that old prima-donna disease would infect any of us in the circumstances of this group: under the microscope for public inspection every 7 years!

mike (again) said...

Oh, I definitely find this documentary series interesting, Twilight. I wish that I had understood the words better in this latest episode, though...I suspect it had more to do with me than them. I probably didn't comprehend 10 to 15% of the spoken, so I filled-in with context.

This is the third episode that I've seen and I found it very easy to get right into it, since each episode continually goes back to previous episodes, particularly the first.

Do you know the conceptual origin of the series, Twilight? I can only suppose that their parents agreed to the original two episodes, as the subjects were still children. Did the producer randomly select these subjects?

As these children were only seven years old at the time of the first episode, I can see that they might feel exploited with the continuation. Perhaps they will become less reluctant in the future episodes...age can mellow a person and they might have a better comprehension of the public's interest into their personal lives. I don't think that I would mind it, but easy for me to say without going through the process!

mike (again) said...

Did you watch the "Genealogy Roadshow" just prior to "57UP"? I've been following "GR", too, and have enjoyed it...and I've previously told you that I'm not that into genealogy!

I like most of PBS' programming...Wednesday night NOVA and the proceeding program is my favorite (tonight's NOVA is the "tech guy" on speed of things followed by what things are made of. I don't have cable, so PBS is my most-watched station.

Twilight said...

mike ~ I'm glad of the flashbacks too, it'd be far too hard to remember all past episodes without them, and they make it possible for new viewers to jump into the series.

Have you read the Wikipedia page on the series, mike? It answers most of your queries, and is an interesting read in general....hadn't fully read it myself until now.

(again) ~ I watched a part of one Genealogy Roadshow but, for my sins, I'm a singing talent contest fan, so watched "The Voice" on Monday evening. It was by pure chance that I noticed "56 Up" on the schedule as I searched for something else to watch, later.

I hope the "Genealogy Roadshow" episodes might be repeated at some point....most things are.

We intend ditching cable, but keep procrastinating. We enjoyed TCM for old movies, but our cable company has fallen out with Ted Turner's lot and removed it, along with CNN from our package. Procrastination will soon end, I think.

Twilight said...

mike~ I mentioned that the two boys from children's homes were orphans - I'm reminded by Wiki that they weren't - they were from broken homes, and both returned to be with a parent or parent/step-parent at some point. The boy who emigrated to Australia did so with his family including stepfather.

So much to know, so much to forget!

LB said...

Twilight ~ Since you were wondering, I watched part of Monday night's show too. As I was watching, I kept thinking how something similar filmed here in the US would be really interesting.

On the other hand, can you imagine what life would be like knowing you were going to be filmed every 7 years and how that knowledge could potentially affect some of your choices? Something about it reminds me of high school reunions, only with more pressure and way more public scrutiny! The Scorpio-Pluto in me cringes at the thought. Yikes.:0

Twilight said...

LB ~ Oh good! Yes, it would be - or maybe we should say "would have been" good to have a US version if begun in the 1960s or even up until the 1980s- it could be a bit too late to begin now (or am I being defeatist/pessimistic, or jealous that I won't see many, if any episodes?) :-)

I'd hate to have been a "subject" myself, I echo your yikes! :-O In my case it must be my natal Cancer ascendant (backing off into my shell). I'd be worrying for most of the 6 years between episodes.

I'm surprised so many of the group have stuck to it - could be the money they earn in some cases, and the "fame" in others, I guess. No money would have been enough for me to agree - nor, I believe for my parents to have agreed when I was aged 7.

Still, I'm glad they found such a representative group who were willing to share themselves and their lives with us.

mike (again) said...

I see that I keep calling the title of the last episode 57UP!!!...guess it's because of the American soda called 7UP.

Thanks for the Wiki link, Twilight...interesting to read and some of the events make more sense to me after reading about it.

Well, guess what? There IS an American version. I happened to notice at the bottom of the Wiki Up Series that there are two films:

Age 7 in America (1991) directed by Phil Joanou
14 Up in America (1998)
21 Up in America (2006) directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn

These can be viewed for free on the internet.

LB said...

Twilight ~ I would've enjoyed following people born during the same time period (1957 or so?), only here in the US. Mostly because I'm in that same age group, so I'd be curious.

mike ~ Thanks for the info.:) I'll try and rent the US version through the library. I love documentaries. One of the first ones I ever remember watching (if not *the* first) was the PBS series, "An American Family". At age 14, I was addicted, though I don't remember relating to any of them at all. They were like aliens to me. But fascinating.:) Says my Aquarius Moon and Chiron.

mike (again) said...

Oh, my gosh, LB...I'd forgotten all about "An American Family"! I watched that documentary series, too. It was very avant garde at the time...the on-air divorce request and the gay coming-out...very juicy at the time! The perfect family with all of its dysfunction.

Twilight said...

mike & LB ~

I shall look for all of those online or on DVD/VHS tape. :-)