63 Up – A real insight into the soul of Britain – words Calum Russell
Documentaries have become the guilty-pleasures of those hungry for authentic drama in a media world led by superhero distraction. Granted, this is usually reserved for true crime stories in the form of podcasts, tv series’, films and pretty much any form of media the non-fiction world can clasp it’s dirty little hands around.
Although it might be the disturbing misdemeanours of the king of pop or the mystery surrounding Madeleine Mccann that currently holds viewers’ attention, such a time is ripe for the scheduled return of the ‘Up series’, an uplifting antidote to the bleak tales of true-crime.
Now nearing its ninth episode, the series has become a seminal documentary and as the late Roger Ebert noted ‘an inspired, even noble use of the film medium’. Choosing fourteen participants of varying social backgrounds from across the UK, the series has chronicled their lives every seven-years. Following their early stages of development from seven to fourteen, years of complicated adolescence from twenty-one to twenty-eight, as well as their development into young adults, mothers, fathers and grandparents at 35+.
When ‘Seven-Up’ was released in 1964 the film was proposed as a one-off analysis into the impact of the class system on children, questioning whether their social boundaries decide their future positions, or if individual drive can defy this stereotype. As the series continued however, the focus quickly switched from a more sweeping social analysis to a deeper psychological one.
Andrew, Charles and John were chosen from a pre-preparatory school in Kensington and radiated much of the upper-class stereotype, even from a young age. This was exuded from both themselves and the films themselves, and at 21 they criticised the documentary for ‘an unrealistic impression’. Similarly Sue, Jackie and Lynn from a working-class background in East London, reject their portrayal in the early films. Grouped together as one collective ‘person’, defined by their shared social class alone, she states at twenty-one “I don’t even think to be honest, we consciously think about it until this programme comes up once every seven years”.
As the series has continued, bringing with it both new life and the loss of old ones, the original social skew of the documentary has faded into irrelevance, as the overwhelming and often heartbreaking stories of the participants flourish. Neil, one of two boys from a working-class area of Liverpool, had, in his youth, typically ambitious dreams of becoming an astronaut and has since become a particular focal-point of the series. An image of success and cosmic adventure soon dwindled into the reality of adolescence, as Neil faced the sobering truths of adult life. Ageing quickly, at twenty-eight Neil looked weathered and downtrodden, a far cry from the spritely and confident boy we see at the series’ inception. Michael Apted, the long running director of the programme feared for his health. At thirty-five however Neil sought solace in fellow participant Bruce, and found professional counselling. He matured and learnt through the films to accept his life choices and current position, last seeing him at 56 running as a local MP candidate.
The Up series is an ode to the everyman, and a stark reminder of the viewers own humanity. Now 63, the not-so-young participants must face new challenges. The same can be said for the documentary. Where early installments could focus on hopes and fears for the future, the new ones must look at the preservation of the present. Whilst the series has had to deal with the deaths of many family members over the course of its 55 year run, never has it had to deal with the death of a participant. As is the nature of the documentary however, and 63 up will be the first to bookend the life of Lynn Johnson, who we last saw at her happiest at 56.
In a period of time where class divide seems abundant, the latest installment in the series, scheduled for a June 4th TV release, couldn’t come at a more apt period of time. Despite the programmes initial intentions, by both natural course and participant demand, the class aspect has become redundant and more importantly, uninteresting. The obvious correlation among the fourteen people is their love and appreciation for the lives they’ve lived and the family and friends they now surround themselves with. Nick, perhaps one of the most successful participants perceptively observes at 56 “It’s not an absolute accurate picture of me, but it’s a picture of somebody”.
For more information visit https://www.itv.com/presscentre/ep1week23/63