In 1964 documentary film maker Michael Apted interviewed 14 seven year old boys and girls from every stratum of English society about their lives and what they hoped for them. He edited the result into the rivetind groundbreaking film, Seven Up!. Over the period of the next almost fifty years he re-interviewed his original participants to see how their lives and views had progressed over the preceding seven years. The results were released as 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, and so on.
Now 56 Up has been released. Of the original 14 all but one has participated in the latest installment. How have things turned out? As Clive Crook notes, it’s complicated:
It’s all so untidy. They keep defying the stereotypes they are supposed to exemplify. After the first program, you see the filmmakers lose interest in their own theory. The dignity as well as the detail of each life forbid generalization of that kind. Once you get to know these people, you don’t want to insult them that way.
One problem you might expect Apted to face doesn’t really arise. Only one of the original 14 dropped out after “Seven Up!” Others take sabbaticals for an episode or two, but “56 Up” has interviews with 13 of the original group.
Subtler problems do arise, however, and Apted skillfully deals with them. One is that the lives grow not only longer but more complicated. In “56 Up,” especially, you have a sense that more of what matters to the group has moved, as it were, off- stage — to ailing, aged parents; to their own children, now leaving home and trying to make their way; to grandchildren. The film allows the extended families their privacy. Perhaps at the group’s insistence, perhaps because doing anything else would have caused the project to collapse under its own weight, they’re shown but not studied.
Good and loving parents matter. Money matters. Dumb luck matters. An apparently innate capacity for happiness matters. Resilience matters. Most of all, a loving and supportive spouse matters.
Michael Apted was only 23 when he started this great, unique, and historic project. He’s over 70 now and I hope that the project outlives him. I look forward to viewing 56 Up and, even more, to the continuing document of the participants’ lives as they pass through the great transitions yet to come.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.