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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And some in the group have adapted to their strange notoriety with as much grace as resignation. In 42 Up Nick smiled as he said, "My ambition as a scientist is to be more famous for doing science than for being in this film. But unfortunately, Michael, it's not gonna happen."


Does age come faster, less kindly, to the English? At 49, most of the Uppers look 59. The gravity of their years (and perhaps of their celebrity) has put sag lines in their faces and slowed their steps. Their big financial moves are to secure retirement homes. They seem prepared quite early for senior citizenship.

Watching the premature and apparently unself-conscious aging of the participants, I wonder if, in the fifth or sixth year of each cycle, they say to themselves, "Time to get a rinse, lose a stone or two, pull my marriage together and straighten out my kids." But that may be the bias of an American, relying on the superficial, the lure of eternal adolescence, more than your average Brit.

Bless the subjects for not getting beautified and Botoxed before they're ready for their septennial closeup. And bless their openness or naivete for continuing with a project that pries open some of their more difficult accommodations to life. It's as if, when they made their deal with the devil, or their recording angel, part of the pact was to be honest, to present themselves as they are, and hope that Apted would be as honest in presenting them.

But that's the trick of reality television. It isn't real. Even assuming that Apted wants to be faithful to his subjects' dreams, moods and rancors, we have to wonder what important elements are lost as he reduces the two days of interviews he does with each subject to 10 or 15 mins. Any writer or editor knows this: subtlety is what's lost in compression. Sometimes the truth, whatever that is in understanding a person's life, is also at risk.

I have no idea what small lies or significant evasions the Uppers or Apted are concealing. But I'd guess that the series gets at the larger truth of Englishness: of reticence and acceptance, of class and an easy or biting humor. "There are many things that might have happened in my life that haven't happened," Neil says, "and there is little point in being regretful and angry about it." To which an American viewer might respond, Why the hell not? And the answer, I think, is: because they're English.

There is an inevitable poignancy to a 42-year group portrait — all those possibilities unfulfilled, all those roads with dour detours. Beyond that, the Up series has created, across classes, a community out of these children, who seem figures from a fairy tale: blessed, or cursed, when they were seven, and emerging every seven years thereafter to endure another public challenge. It's almost Harry Potterish. By overcoming their natural desire for privacy, by revealing themselves unsparingly, these septennial TV celebrities have become, in a modest but modern way, true movie heroes.

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