Keeping Up With the Seven Up

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Simon as seen in 49 UP, a film by Michael Apted.

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The challenge of expressing feelings has become a major motif in the series as the subjects cope both with the flattening out of the career or family arcs and with their emergence every seven years to talk about themselves. Nick, who read Physics at Oxford and got a job as teacher and researcher in nuclear fusion at the University of Wisconsin, acknowledges that "I don't quite get how other people feel about things sometimes." He thinks he fits into an unemotional profession and he poses the joke: "How can you tell if an engineer is an extrovert, and the answer is: He looks at your shoes when he's talking to you." After divorcing UW teacher Jackie (they had one son), he married Chris, a starchier Jessica Lange. When Apted asks Chris, "Is he sexy?" you can see Nick cringe.

Bruce also became a teacher, After university, he put his early Christian altruism to action, instructing poor children in Bangladesh and London. He finally felt eroded by the experience and took a job at an upscale boys' school. In middle age he married Penny and had two sons. About his marriage he says, "If Penny really wants to give me a hard time, she'd say, ‘Talk to me about your feelings.'"

Any documentarian is a dramatist waiting for something to happen. To put the matter less prettily, he's a ghoul waiting for a photogenic victim. Apted got that with Neil, so vital and cheerful at seven, pensive at 14 but hopeful of going to Oxford (he didn't get in)... and at 21 homeless! And most unnervingly agitated, while insisting that he'd "love to be in politics or something." Seven years later he was homeless in Scotland. (Apted: "Do you worry about your sanity?" Neil: "Other people sometimes worry about it.") At he was living in a Shetland Island council house. (Apted: "Do you ever think you're going mad?" Neil: "Oh, I don't think it. I know it.") At 42, he'd returned to London, where Bruce generously put him up. Neil did end up in politics: as a Liberal Democratic representative in Hackney; and at 49 he was a District Councillor in the county of Cumbria.

Speaking with the intensity of Tony Perkins in Psycho's stuffed-bird sequence, and explaining with a pained precision his journey through life, Neil is aware of the figure he cuts in the series. "I did have one girlfriend for close on two years," he tells Apted, "so maybe I'm not as completely hopeless a character as might appear to be the case." His melancholy sense of drama — the drama that happens to people — makes him ideally suited for his second job: as a lay reader in church. He says he "preferred the Old Testament to the New Testament, because in the Old Testament God is very unpredictable. And that's how I've seen Him in my life." Yet he retains a flinty sort of optimism, or is it stoicism? "I see that life comes once," he says, "and it's quite short, and you have to appreciate what's good in it."

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