The Up Series: Give Me a Child of 7 and I Will Show You the Man

Posted by Miss Ess, March 11, 2008 12:30pm | Post a Comment
I spent much of the last week immersed in Michael Apted's Up Series on DVD.  This documentary film series is fascinating-- each film offers a close look at how one becomes an adult, how certain decisions form and create a life, and how one's idea of one's self effects one's eventual place in the world. 

In 1964, a group of 7 year old English children were interviewed about their views on life, love, and the future.  Apted has revisited the children every 7 years-- so there are films for 14, 21, 28, 35, and 42 years old that all come in one handy box for your viewing pleasure. I've heard there's at least one more film, for 49, out there too.

It seems like these films were the precursor to reality tv in a way, for better or worse.  I think the project was started to see what effect class has on a British child's future, but it really offers much more than that.  The class system in Britain is still in effect in certain ways, although you can see over the years of the films that it breaks down quite a bit.  More importantly, the films capture real lives, real issues, real triumphs, real failures.

Watching the idealistic, blunt and hopeful children become independent, challenging, full adults is completely absorbing.  Who wants to think about getting old?  I mean, no one really,  but it's pretty interesting to watch people age before your eyes and to see and hear about the changes that they are going through.

One child, Neil, just broke my heart.  At 7 you can easily see the brightness and humor in his eyes.  He says that when he's older he doesn't want any children because they are naughty and dirty the house.  You can see plainly on his grinning face that he is guilty of this crime and has been scolded for it many a time. By 14, his eyes have already grown deadened and his front teeth have been busted out at sharp angles, never to be repaired (at least not by 42-- very British!).  The light never returns to his face either.  He has been raised in a Liverpool suburb and by adolescence feels misunderstood by just about everyone.  By 21 he's living in a squat in London and Neil continues to meander on, homeless and fairly destitute.  It's striking to see his life begin in such a hopeful way and spiral off and downward, and it's interesting to try to think about why.  By 42 he's finally starting to look for real employment and trying to make his way toward a career in something close to his heart.  His journey is a rough one to watch, at least for me.

On the other hand, Nicholas, a farm boy, grows up the only child in a tiny village.  He is educated in a one room schoolhouse.  At 7 he says he wants to learn about "the moon and stars and all that." By 14 he is so shy he won't even look up at the camera, hiding behind glasses and a long forelock of hair.  At 21 though, he's managed to make it to Oxford and is studying Physics, which continues to be his career.  He ends up by 28 bringing his English wife across the seas and teaches Physics at a university in America.  The series brings him back to his father's farmland at 42 to survey the property and muse about what parts of the space he grew up in are always with him internally.

There are many other subjects in the film, around 15 people total I think.  I rooted for all of them and found myself invested in their stories and their lives as they stumble through the world.  I highly recommend watching all of these films-- even though the people are "ordinary," I don't see what is more compelling than what ends up making up an "ordinary" life, really.

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Michael Apted (1), The Up Series (1)