Seven Up! (1964), 7 Plus Seven (1971), 21 Up (1977), 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1991), 42: Forty-Two Up (1998), 49 Up (2005)
Director: Michael Apted
First Run Features
In 1964, 14 school children were chosen for a TV documentary about the effect of class distinctions in England. Every seven years since, Apted has revisited his subjects to see how they're getting on. This social experiment has grown into the all-time longest-running reality-TV show and a fascinating exercise in directorial sympathy and exploitation. These mostly private people have grown up knowing that, whatever crevices of their lives they'd like to caulk, Apted will come calling in hopes of getting them to spill all.
The latest episode, airing on PBS this week, shows the Up kids (they're all still alive, though not all have continued with the program) settling into middle age, coping with kids and grandkids, surviving busted marriages and, in one case, homelessness and a nervous breakdown. But this epic saga is worth watching in sequence, to see how the energy, innocence and prejudices of youth get tamped down, curdled and tempered by experience.
One senses that, if the project had been launched here, the participants would display a lot more showmanship. As The Real World, The Jerry Springer Show and the nightly news indicates, every American wants to be on television. (Actually, director Phil Joannou did attempt a U.S. version in 1991; somehow it didn't take.) But the very reticence of Apted's bunch makes the revelations he pries out of them seem true and poignant. We've come to know these aging kids as well as sort of secondary kin, an adjacent branch on our human family tree. With each new episode we renew acquaintances, notice how they've aged, see them as plausible variants on ourselves. The experience is always instructive, sobering and warming. After all, after all these years, they're still here and so are we.