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The Circle Game

Time traveler: East Ender Tony at 49 (First Run Features)

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).

Those in the middle were the ones that got away, beneficiaries of successive post–World War II Labor governments that, to the horror of the Johns of this world, busily expanded the education system at all levels. There’s no denying the rigidity of the English schooling system, but there were holes in it, and oddly enough, it was the holes that allowed at least some bright children from the working and middle classes to break through into elite educations. Like Nick, who went to college and ended up a professor of engineering at a top United States university, I might have gotten thoroughly lost in one of Labor’s huge new egalitarian comprehensive schools, but flourished instead at a traditional grammar school and went on to London University. Still, had I not immigrated to America, land of opportunity and self-invention, I doubt whether I’d ever have become a writer in Britain, where in my day, media careers were strictly for the WASPs.

If the Up series began as a study in British social determinism, over the years it has turned into a chronicle of a rapidly changing England, for better and worse. The rich remain rich, but their arrogant contempt for all who sit below the salt has dropped away. At 14, John’s highest ambitions were for fame and power; now his parliamentary dreams have (almost) fallen away, and along with his wife, he administers a charity that helps the disadvantaged in Bul­garia. Noblesse oblige, undoubtedly, but we like him all the better for it, and he gets off the most potent existential line in the movie: “Who wants to be the richest corpse in the graveyard?”

None of the working-class kids remains in poverty. Easygoing Sue now administers the M.A. program of a large college. Tony, a charming blowhard whose appetite for the spotlight makes him, of all the group, the only likely candidate for one of Britain’s many cheerfully down-market reality shows, still works alongside his wife as a cabby, though he occasionally moonlights as a television actor. A grandfather, he’s also bought a lavish house in Spain and plans to retire there. The only subject to make himself available for interviews, Tony e-mailed me from London, where he was getting ready to fly to New York for the premiere of 49 Up: “If you would have told me as a kid that I would own a house in Spain, I would have thought you must be mad. Our family never had a dime to spend, but through hard work and determination, my dream came true.”

Amusingly, Tony regards London’s East End, a way station for immigrants for centuries (my mother grew up there in the 1920s, when the borough was predominantly Jewish and Catholic), as his personal fiefdom, and England as a mirror of his own kind. Less amusingly, his decision to leave was influenced by the presence of “other cultures” (these days, mostly Bangladeshi in his neighborhood).

“The English way of life has changed,” he wrote me, echoing sentiments he expresses in 49 Up. “I am a traditionalist, and my traditions are being erased by all the politics of political correctness, and it drives me mad.” That this is virtually the only time racial anxieties really come up in the series is a measure of how anachronistic the Upsters are now (only one of them, Simon, is nonwhite) in a society where, as in all of Western Europe, ethnicity is rapidly overlaying or eclipsing social class as the salient social divide. It will doubtless show up in a new 7 Up series, launched in 2000 by Granada, that has yet to be shown in the United States.

Plugging away with the class card, Apted often seems to be flogging a half-dead horse, but even he acknowledges that this once self-fulfilling prophecy has “grown out of itself into something more universal. The social system has loosened up a bit.” And, along with it, his questions, which grow more personal (sometimes too personal — in an earlier episode, when he asked a visibly distressed Neil whether he ever thought he was going mad, I wanted to slug him), more focused on love, family and relationships — the areas that matter most to his interview subjects.

Not that they don’t resent the intrusion. And as they close in on 50, some have come to feel that the series has typecast them as symbols of class, or that it keeps bringing up painful issues they’d rather not revisit. (We boomers fondly imagine we pioneered mass divorce, but one of the sadder surprises of the series is how many of the Upsters, and not just the working-class ones, come from broken families.) Suzy, once so awkward and now so soft and round and comfortable at last in her own skin, announces her intention of bowing out, even though, as Apted has told her repeatedly, she’s a star in the eyes of many viewers. To John, who, like others, has dipped in and out of attendance, the show is “every seven years, a little pill of poison,” and he openly admits he sees his participation in 49 Up as potential publicity for his charity organization. Simon cheerfully tells Apted that most mornings “I wake up hating you.”

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.

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.