Of all the films about which I guessed wrong in assuming they would get an Oscar nomination or two, none ended up taking more of my time than 49 Up. For those who haven’t heard of it, in 1964, a documentary film, 7 Up, was made about a bunch of 7–year-old English kids. Every seven years since then, the film makers return to update their series. Now we’ve got 49 Up. And I figured the latest installment in such a highly-regarded series would surely get nominated for Best Documentary.
I should have done more research. None of the “Up” films has ever been nominated for an Oscar. Too late for me … having always been interested, but never having actually watched, I hunkered down and watched every one of the films, from 7 Up through 42 Up, to prepare for 49 Up. By the time I got around to 49 Up, the Oscar nominations were out and 49 Up was nowhere to be found. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna waste all of those hours I spent watching the earlier movies, so I watched 49 Up and will say something about it, and the series, here.
Everyone notes what a fascinating idea this is for a continuing series. The impact is perhaps less now, when reality television is everywhere, than it was in 1964, but the cumulative effect of the movies far surpasses whatever pleasures you might get from watching Flavor of Love. Some of the kids turn out as you might expect, others do not … all of them are recognizably human, and over time you go past hoping this one does better than that one … you like them all, want the best for them all.
The films are, or at least were, intended as a critique of British class society, but the films are least successful when they push that point. Far too often, interviewer and director Michael Apted asks leading questions designed to show off his notions about class … just as often, the replies are unexpected, thankfully. In 49 Up, more than in any other of the films, Apted is challenged by the participants. Many of them dislike having their lives interrupted every seven years … some think Apted and the series unfairly portrays their lives. A couple have quit participating over the course of the films, including at least two spouses.
And it’s important to remember, they were seven when the series began. Someone else made the decision to put them in the film. They are the ones who continue to take part, but it must be difficult, being in something you didn’t ask for, knowing the whole world is watching your life go by. The most astute observer of this is John, who in the early films seems almost unlikable. Conservative, privileged, snobbish … there’s not much to like. And then he refused to take part in 28 Up, saying he’d said all that needed to be said. But he returned for 35 Up, because he wanted to get the word out about a Bulgarian charity he worked on, and after another break, he’s back again in 49 Up, just as conservative, just as privileged, but far more likeable, in a noblesse oblige kind of way. He’s the most successful, on the surface, of any of the group … I don’t quite understand the English legal system, but he’s a high-ranking lawyer of some kind. And while others do a better job of conveying their anger at the misrepresentations they feel are inherent in the series, John best articulates the basic problem, as he discusses why he thinks the films are popular. They are like reality shows, only you get to watch people’s hair thin and guts enlarge. “Fascinating, I’m sure,” he says, then adds, “But does it have any value? That’s a different question.”
And that’s the nut of it. Because it’s well-made, because the participants are likeable, because over the course of 42 years we get to know them, or at least get to know their “Up” personas, for all of these reasons, the Up series seems legitimate, even classy, and I think we might see more in them than really exists. Fascinating, for sure. But I don’t have the answer to John’s question about value, and I’ve spent more than a dozen hours recently watching them all.