Ironically, Charles, a guarded young man who dropped out of the series after 21 Up, went on to become a documentary filmmaker for the BBC’s hipster Channel Four. Apted, who keeps approaching dropouts to return, is not amused by his refusal. “Charles is outrageous,” he says. “He’s in the biz! I think he’s under a lot of pressure from his wife not to do it, and from his peers to do it. But he’s someone who’s prepared to live by the sword, but not die by it.” And in one riveting exchange, warm, prickly Jackie lambastes her helpless interrogator (all credit to him for not banishing her to the cutting-room floor) for his low expectations of her. “This may be the first one,” she cries, “that’s about us rather than your perception of us.”
In the end, whether you see the Up series as a great humanistic experiment, an exercise in cultural domination or, as John ruefully puts it, another episode of Big Brother, its pleasures are narrative and emotional rather than sociological. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching life spans play out in all their banality and drama, with all their surprising left turns and leaps out of character, and their shedding of early miseries. In its way, the series is more refutation than confirmation of the Jesuit motto that guided its first episode: “Give me the child until he is 7, and I will show you the man.” Yes, the rich stay rich, but if ever there was living proof of the limits of privilege in determining happiness, it’s these films.
Time traveler: East Ender Tony at 49 (First Run Features)
Perhaps because he caught hell from so many of his subjects in 49 Up, Apted sees a harder, angrier edge to his subjects than in 42 Up. What I see is a kind of seasoned contentment, a sturdy capacity to rebuild whatever has been broken in their lives, and an acceptance of what can no longer be. For the time being, we say goodbye to Neil with his butterfly and his helpful God. To Nick, after a divorce he never saw coming, happy as a clam in a commuter marriage with his new wife. To Paul and Simon, with the complete families they never had themselves. To Jackie, who didn’t want children and now adores all three, though she’s no longer with their fathers. To Suzy, Bruce, John and Andrew — all redeemed by marriages that work. And to Tony’s rock-solid wife, Debbie, who has steered the marriage (“I don’t know how she sticks it,” says Apted) through rocky waters more than once. To judge by 49 Up, the extended family is far from dead; it’s different, in myriad adaptive ways.
“We live without our dreams,” says Bruce, who gave up on the grind of teaching math in the East End and now teaches at the ritzy St. Alban’s School on the outskirts of London. In seven years’ time, their serenity may be shattered by the incremental losses of early old age. For now, one sees across the board an inspiring decency, and the wisdom to know that if hell is other people, it’s the only hell we’ve got.
49 Up is now playing in Los Angeles theaters. The Up Series, a five-disc collector’s-edition DVD, is in stores now.