Judge Elizabeth Skipper is thankful no one has followed her around with a documentary crew her whole life. She probably wouldn't be able to live with her hairstyle in 1987.
Our review of The Up Series, published October 11th, 2007, is also available.
"Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man."
…then give me that child until he is forty-two, and I will give you an original and insightful documentary.
Facts of the Case
The Up Series began in 1964 with Seven Up!, a 39-minute study of 14 British children from different walks of life: Some were attending private school, others went to what Americans would call public school, and others were wards of the state. Some lived in the city, others in the suburbs, and others in the country. Some were rich, others were middle class, and others were poor. All except one were white. Jackie, Susan, Lindsay, Nicholas, Neil, Peter, Tony, John, Charles, Andrew, Paul, Simon, Bruce, and Suzy were asked questions about discipline, segregation vs. integration of the sexes, social and economic class, religion, race, et cetera, and their answers recorded as "a glimpse of Britain's future," "a glimpse of the shop steward and the executive of the year 2000."
Seven Up! was never meant to be more than a standalone episode of a
documentary television series, but Michael Apted, a researcher for the show, was
so fascinated by the material that he decided to return seven years later to
direct the next installment in the series that would eventually comprise:
According to Apted's audio commentary on 42 Up, he plans to continue as long as enough of the subjects are willing to participate, and 49 Up is expected sometime this year.
The Up Series began as a commentary on politics—an obviously liberal look at classism in Britain—but ended up a study of the human condition. By 42 Up, we have seen these 14 children (minus a few who neglected to participate further) experience joy, sorrow, love, heartbreak, birth, death, disappointment, success, and everything else that makes us human. Sure, we've seen documentaries of such experiences, but never before have we seen their long-term effects on a person's life. Never before have we seen how the statements of a seven-year-old child can predict the temperament of a 42-year-old. Never before have we seen so intimately the process of growing up. Never before has the experience of being human been shown in such detail.
Apted, with his slow and casual interview style, makes us care about these people's lives and even the most mundane details tug at our heartstrings. Somehow he shows that every life, no matter how seemingly normal and uneventful, makes a great story, if you know how to tell it. And that's what's so great about The Up Series: Nothing exceedingly special happens—no one dies or becomes Prime Minister—nothing happens that would ever make anyone think to film a documentary about it, but it is compelling nonetheless. At the end of 42 Up, no one said "I can't tell you what I'll be doing in the next seven years, but I can tell you it has something to do with gender reassignment surgery" and no one was on the verge of discovering a cure for cancer or plotting to overthrow the government, yet I find myself eagerly anticipating 49 Up and what it will bring.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Up Series is watching the physical evolutions of the subjects. Not only was the history of the hairstyles and fashions fascinating, but I also enjoyed the rare experience of seeing videotape of someone at seven followed almost immediately by videotape of said person at forty-two. The journey from then to now is demonstrated by video in a way that photographs can't rival.
It's too bad that, with the exception of 42 Up, the video is such bad quality, with grain, dirt, and shimmering galore. Then again, I suppose that's to be expected from such old film that probably wasn't great to begin with. What they did have control over, the film from 1998, is quite lovely, so I'll forgive the inferiority of the rest.
I'll have to learn to live with the audio quality as well. That will be an uphill battle, as part of my enjoyment was from listening to the varied accents and how they changed (or didn't) over the years, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track doesn't do them justice. Digging the hole deeper is the lack of English subtitles (or any, for that matter). The East End accent is difficult enough to decipher, but add less-than-ideal sound quality and you must give me subtitles so that I can fake my way through some of the dicier parts.
The only extra worth mentioning is an audio commentary by director Michael Apted on 42 Up, but it is indeed worth mentioning. He answered quite a few of my questions, including the obvious: Why didn't all the subjects participate in each installment? He also had great stories to tell about the process, the individuals, and the philosophy behind the series. Definitely take the time to listen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With seven years between each of the original installments, the length of time in each devoted to recap of the previous installments is understandable. Without that memory jog, I doubt most viewers would have been able to remember who was who and what had happened seven or 14 or even 35 years earlier. But now that all the episodes are available in one DVD set, able to be watched one right after the other, that recap is torturous to sit through. So, I offer a caveat: Just because you can watch them in a row doesn't mean you should. And if you do, keep your finger poised above the fast-forward button.
I can't think of anyone who wouldn't get something out of viewing the six installments of The Up Series. And, despite its price (MSRP $99.95), lack of extras, and less than wonderful transfers, I recommend, with only slight hesitation, that you purchase this set. Not only will you want to watch parts of it again, especially as subsequent episodes emerge, but you will want to show it to everyone you know, so why not buy it and save them the rental fee?
The Up Series is cleared of all charges against it and its 42-year sentence is lifted.
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