Film

The Documentary Project That’s Followed the Same Subjects for Over 50 Years

63 Up is the latest installment in the Up series, which has revisited a set of British people every seven years since they were children, tracking their lives and development.

Poster for 63 Up (all images courtesy BritBox)

There’s a particular relationship that’s developed between filmmaker Michael Apted and the subjects of his Up series of documentaries. “You know me, Michael,” one will say, without having to finish his thought. Or “You tell me, Michael,” another will say with a laugh. The British director has tracked the lives of 14 people since they were seven years old, checking in on them every seven years, beginning with Seven Up! in 1964. The result is a rather meticulous record of each of their lives as they go through childhood, adolescence, university, first jobs, marriages, having children of their own, divorce, and losing parents and spouses — or as they might put it in their uniquely English way, simply “getting on with life.” One subject, Nick, understates things when he remarks that after all this, Apted (and audiences) know them quite well. The ninth installment in the series, 63 Up, is now opening in theaters in the US.

Speaking to Roger Ebert about the films in 2006, Apted said, “For those who have grown up with it, it becomes, as you say, part of our lives.” But he wondered if it was odd for people who see the whole thing at once. “Is it as meaningful to them?” he asked. “I don’t know.” When I decided to watch Seven Up! one evening in 2010 at the age of 20, I found that taking in the whole thing in the era of binge-watching is uniquely surreal. By dawn, I had watched seven episodes, the subjects were 49 years old, and I was buzzing with a newfound sense of omniscience. Punchy seven-year-old Tony grew up to be a cab driver with three kids, precocious John became a barrister, shy East Londoner Jackie would eventually be feeding her fussy son cereal in their kitchen. It was the closest thing I’d ever witnessed to magic. 

There’s also a feeling of intense relatability in watching these subjects mature. I may not have been born in 1956, but my father was, and I found myself simultaneously trying to understand these people in relation to my own experience coming of age in 2010 while seeing what it must have been like for my dad as a 21-year-old in 1977. I’m now somewhere between 28 and 35 Up, and episodes that once only served as a preview of adulthood are becoming increasingly familiar. 

The series was initially commissioned by British network Granada in 1963, with the intention of showing how class affected one’s life. “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” goes the Jesuit motto that inspired the project. Viewers were left to determine how much a child’s upbringing would play into their individual experiences. Apted was an assistant on Seven Up!, helping to select a group of children which ranged from the upper echelons of society to those living in poorer conditions. (Apted has since stated that he regrets that they did not select any middle-class children, and that there are only four female subjects.) The films soon evolved beyond its initial premise into more intimate views of the participants. “The politics of the film are their lives,” Apted told Ebert. “Their lives are political statements.” 

Promo image for 63 Up

Condensing seven years into a 15-minute segment within a two-hour film is tricky. Apted certainly takes liberties as the series rolls on, interweaving moments from past episodes to create poetic continuity. Each character is reintroduced with a glimpse of their day-to-day lives through footage featuring everything from country strolls with children to tennis matches, birthday parties, and pub karaoke. I’ve developed a certain fondness for this artificiality — it’s a reflection of what the subjects choose to put forward for the camera. They’re caught somewhere between conveying realistic portraits of their lives and projecting stability. 

For anyone following the series, whether in real time or marathon form, it’s been hard to avoid the question of how it will end. Nick, a physics professor from Yorkshire, has been diagnosed with cancer. Lynn, one of a trio of East London girls who went on to become a children’s librarian, passed away in 2013. Apted himself is nearly 80, and has said that he hopes the series will carry on after he’s gone. With each installment, and each passing seven-year period, I find myself growing more attached to these people, and less prepared to say goodbye.

63 Up is now playing at Film Forum (209 W Houston Street) in New York. It opens at the Landmark Nuart (11272 Santa Monica Boulevard) in Los Angeles December 6, with a nationwide expansion to follow. The previous films in the Up series can be streamed on BritBox.

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