By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
At the tail end of 49 Up, the latest chapter in Michael Apted’s mesmerizing seven-yearly snoop into the lives of a strategically chosen group of Brits, one of his subjects tells an anecdote about a butterfly that landed on him one day while he was sunbathing. Watching the creature open and fold its magnificent wings — content, as he puts it, with just being beautiful — he was struck by the thought that perhaps the secret of life is no more or less than learning how to be who we already are.
Coming from anyone else, this would sound like so much therapeutic rubbish, but the speaker is Neil, whom fans of the series have anxiously followed as he slid downhill from a twinkly lad skipping along a street in his duffle coat into a homeless nomad eking out a marginal existence just this side of psychosis. By the time of 42 Up, Neil had been somewhat rescued by goodhearted Bruce, he of the jug ears and missionary vocation, and the modestly good news in 49 Up is that Neil has found ways to rescue himself by running for local office in Cumbria (a starkly beautiful outpost of northern England), cobbling together as much of a social life as he can stand, and finding provisional peace of mind through God. Even the most hardened atheist would wish him well.
Why have we come to care so deeply about Neil? About Tony, the would-be jockey, and Jackie, Lynn and Susan, three cockney girls from London’s East End, and Paul and Simon from the children’s home? About Nick, the phlegmatic Yorkshire farm lad, and timid Bruce, sucking in his cheeks as the pintsize dictator at his chilly boarding school put him through a brutal regimen of calisthenics? About Suzy, cocooned in wealth but so uncomfortable in her own skin she can hardly bear to meet the camera’s eye? Even about smug prep-schoolers John, Andrew and Charles, bragging about their investments and the Oxbridge colleges that eagerly awaited their arrival, and grousing about the unruliness of the poor and the less gifted?
My own attachment is proprietary, nostalgic and narcissistic. I grew up in London at roughly the same time as and in similar circumstances to some of the 7 Upsters who fell on the wrong side of what were then rigidly defined social tracks. I knew no one who went to boarding school, or who spoke in the plummy diction that comes second nature to John, Andrew and Charles. My only acquaintance with stately homes was on ghastly school outings, when we were forced to trudge through galleries filled with oil paintings of grumpy blue bloods riding to hounds with packs of baying beagles.
It was enough to put us off upward mobility for life, yet in fact, most of the lower-middle-class students at my grammar school (650 girls ages 11 to 17, and heaven help you if you showed up without the green necktie) forged ahead into educational and career destinations that our parents, most of whom had left school when they were 12 years old, could only have dreamed of. So much as I loved the Up series, England’s first reality-television show and (next to the massively popular Coronation Street) its longest-running soap opera, it always smelled a little of a partisan upper-class-Marxist selectivity that squeezed its subjects into a class structure more deterministic than the evidence strictly justified.
To judge by 49 Up, which comes out in theaters as a DVD box set of the entire series arrives in stores, some of its participants think so too. To watch the series from beginning to end is, in part, to squirm with its subjects as director Michael Apted, certainly no fly on the wall, plies them with queries about boyfriends and girlfriends — quick personal touches before getting down to business with leading questions about where they think they’re going (or staying, more like it) in life.
Growing up long before reality television was a twinkle in the eye of audience-hungry executives, none of these kids chose to have their lives X-rayed for a growing public over a period of 40 years. They were dragooned into participation by parents, teachers and the left-leaning producers of a television show that even Apted (who has directed or co-directed the series since Granada TV shot the first episode in 1964, but now lives in Hollywood and is best known as the director of Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist and The World Is Not Enough) admits was brimming with political agenda. “The show was designed to prove that even with the violent upheaval of the counterculture, the class system was as ironclad as ever,” says the 65-year-old filmmaker, himself the upwardly mobile son, by way of Cambridge University, of a lower-middle-class family. “And it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
And up to a point, a pretty persuasive one. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of kids more thoroughly conditioned by social class — as filtered through family, school and Apted’s canny editing — than the ones we met in 7 Up. Compare and contrast the little East End scrappers with the three little candidates for upper-class twit of the private-school year — two groups so different in means, style, outlook and language, they might as well have been living on different planets. The scary thing is how accurately most of these children predicted their educational and economic futures. Two of the private-school boys went to Oxbridge and on into the legal profession, while the third, Charles, went to the barely less tony Durham University. None of the working-class children got even close to a university education, in part, it must be said, because they obediently selected themselves out, as have the bulk of their children (most of whom are doing very nicely nonetheless).
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