Time has been neither kind nor cruel to the 13 men and women profiled in “56 UP.’’ It has just been time, which is what this groundbreaking series is about.
Back in 1964, the BBC aired “7 UP,’’ a documentary about a group of schoolchildren from all walks of British life: Rich and poor, city and country. Director Michael Apted, a researcher on that film, decided to look in on the kids again when they were 14, and then when they were 21, and so on. “28 UP’’ was the first to receive US distribution, and since then a lot of us have waited for each seven-year bulletin with a mixture of eagerness and dread. Would Jackie find a job? Would Paul find self-confidence? Would dear, sweet Neil ever find peace? The attitude of many “UP’’ fans hovers between voyeurism and concern, between cherishing these people as distant friends and as extensions of ourselves. They’re canaries in the coal mine of human existence.
The latest installment is again essential viewing, but it represents a holding pattern. Children are grown, grandchildren have appeared, parents are failing, but old age itself hasn’t arrived. While careers are heading into their final few chapters, the subjects resist the urge to start summing things up. Not yet, not yet, is the unspoken refrain. Instead, Apted’s 56-year-olds use their screen time to clarify, once and for all, that they are not who they seem to be in these films.
As usual, Neil has the best bead on it. Lively and bright-eyed at 7, homeless at 21, at 56 a small-town politician and lay preacher who still struggles with his demons, he speaks forcefully of letters received from viewers over the years assuring him they knew “exactly how I feel, and none of them — not a single one of them — knew exactly how I was feeling.’’ He’s bitter that his status as a sort of beloved national freak has overshadowed his writing career, and he has come to the conclusion that “it’s not for this program to expose my private feelings.’’
And yet Neil continues to participate, as does John, who in “56 UP’’ wants us to know that he was never the upper-class twit the series painted him as but the offspring of a single mother and an Oxford student on scholarship. The message of the original “7 UP’’ was that England’s rigid class system was absolute destiny, for better and mostly worse, but the series itself says something far more complicated: that social class shapes but cannot define and that we all muddle through regardless of where we began. Maybe it’s just luck of the draw, but there are no villains here.
The trio of girls from London’s working-class East End have gone their separate ways: Sue to a rewarding career as a university administrator; Jackie to years on disability that the government has suddenly decreed must end; Lynn getting ready to draw from her pension after being cut from her lifelong job as a librarian. The economic downturn looms in the background, heard in Apted’s patient off-screen questions and in the occasional bristling of the subjects.
Peter, who left the series after his anti-Thatcher comments in “21 UP’’ got him in trouble with the Murdoch press, returns because he wants to promote his band, and why not? Why shouldn’t the guinea pigs get some lettuce for themselves? (Peter’s Gram Parsons-inflected country rock is pretty good, by the way.) Upper-class Suzy, ever poised and ever uncertain, returns but only in the company of old friend Nick, the English farm boy who became an American nuclear physicist. Like the others — like us — they confess to watching these documentaries and wondering “That’s all there is to me?’’
Yes and no. Whether Apted, now 72, continues the series or hands it off to other directors, the “UP’’ films are unique in the history of both film and anthropology. Time-lapse studies of the human animal in all his and her ordinary beauty, they still capture life as it’s reflected upon, not as it’s lived. There’s so much the cameras can’t capture, including the happiness we spend entire lives chasing. Leave it to Neil, again, to put it most succinctly. “Perhaps we’re most happy,’’ he says, “when we’re not aware of it.’’