Filmmaker Michael Apted's extraordinary documentary series, launched in 1964 with Seven Up - profiling a group of British 7-year-olds from working-class and upper-class backgrounds - and revisiting its subjects every seven years since, is now firmly in middle age. There have been marriages and divorce. Children growing up to have their own children. Parents dying. Career successes and setbacks. Happiness, regrets, hope.
It isn't necessary to have kept up with all the Ups over the years. In 56 Up, which will make you laugh and cry, shake your head in affirmation and dismay, the return visits to Neil, Jackie, Peter, Suzy, Nick, Sue, and the rest are intercut with respective clips from the previous installments. Once again, we see the bright-eyed and confident Neil at 7, and then the shaken teenager, the troubled young adult with the "nervous complaint," and then raggedy, raging, homeless at 28.
Happily, at 56, working in local politics in a sleepy village in the north of England, Neil has found a modicum of peace. He addresses Apted's camera with candor and lucidity, countering the perceptions audiences may have taken away over the years. (In the United Kingdom, where the Up series airs on Granada TV, its subjects were "reality TV" stars, with all the accordant media coverage and controversies, long before the term even existed.)
The quote "life is what happens while you're busy making other plans" is misattributed to Albert Camus in 56 Up - it's really that sage Beatle John Lennon's line - but no matter, the point is well taken. Sue, the cheery kid in the school blazer, never went to university, but now she is the head administrator for a London law school, brimming with confidence and good cheer. Paul, who lived in a children's home as a boy, quiet and unsure, emigrated to Australia. He married, had children, and now works with his wife at a residence for seniors. He runs and cycles and looks forward to a healthy old age.
Peter, who dropped out of the series after 28 Up, is back in 56 Up, in large part, he confesses, to promote his band, the Good Intentions, which has enjoyed some success in Britain. And Suzy and Nick, who became good friends through their participation in the Ups, appear together for their interviews. Nick, in the energy sciences, went off to America to do research and teach at the University of Wisconsin. Suzy is still married to Rupert, her husband in 28 Up. Their children are grown.
Jackie, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and unable to maintain a job, talks about cutbacks under David Cameron's government that have made life a struggle. Her mother and her ex-husband both have cancer; her three sons have jobs, and she is about to be a grandmother. The safety net that has long been integral to the British social system is fraying, and the effects on Jackie and the series' less-well-off particpants is palpable.
Although the respective stories are different, the paths taken, by choice or hazard, wildly divergent in their outcome, what ultimately is so compelling about 56 Up is the universality of the experiences. We were all once children. And we all will die. And in between, there is everything else.