The Up Series hits 56

Somewhere I ran across a review for 56 Up. I mentioned it to a fellow anglophile at work, and he couldn’t believe I had never heard of the Up Series. But then he was once a teacher. He told me that Netflix had them through 49 Up. And my wife and I got hooked.

Essentially, in 1963, a British documentary crew selected 14 seven-year old students from upper and lower class backgrounds to try to make a point about the inevitability of the rigid class system. The first, grainy episode – Seven Up – came out in 1964. It was poignant and funny as the little upper-class kids seemed to know already which college at Oxford or Cambridge they would attend, while the little working class kids wanted to be astronauts, jockeys or coach drivers. There were ten boys and four girls, a poor choice that is partially evened out because most of the boys’ future wives participate a great deal while very few of the girls’ future mates have much camera time.

I doubt that the filmmakers expected just how much life would change in the late sixties and early seventies. At 7 Plus Seven (1970) all the children seemed a bit embarrassed by what they had said before. One of the three public school boys seemed headed down the long-haired hippie route while his two fellows were still clean-cut, serious Oxbridge types.

By 21 Up (1977), the upper-class girl had left school to travel. She worked an ordinary job, smoked cigarettes and renounced all that seven-year-old talk about having two children. One fellow left to find work in America, another ended up in Australia and another spent some time in India. Most of them married; many got divorced and most of them remarried. One divorced dad said his wife seemed a different person after her father died, which really struck home with me. And there were many more surprises.

The late Roger Ebert reviewed 49 Up:

When you live with Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries, there tends to be one character who most focuses your attention. For me, in “28 Up” through “42 Up,” it was Neil, the troubled loner. As a boy, he wanted to be a tour bus guide, telling people what to look at. As an adult, he still has an impulse to lead and instruct, but it hasn’t worked out, and he became a morose loner. In one film there was a shot of him standing next to a lake in Scotland, in front of his shabby mobile home, no one else in sight; I thought, “Neil will be dead by the next film.”

We worried, too. Some compare watching the show to having another family, but that’s a bit much. These folk are just a year or two younger than I am, and to me, watching each show is more like catching up with an old group of schoolmates every seven years.

56 Up won’t be out on video until July 2013, and I have no idea when it will be on Netflix.

Update 20130708: 56 Up is on Netflix. Watching it now.

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