The Up Documentary Series Is the Anti-Reality TV []

by Rich Juzwiak /

If Michael Apted’s Up series of documentaries plays like the older, more relaxed brother of reality TV, it’s because that’s basically what it is. Launched in 1964 as a one-off special of interviews with 7-year-olds in Seven Up by director Paul Almond, the film surveyed 14 kids of various economic backgrounds to explore England’s class system (it was based on the repeatedly invoked Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”). Apted, who helped cast that film, then took over and has returned to its subjects every seven years to document their lives over time. Though the films are still inherently political, what emerged was less of an economic survey and more one of humanity. Reality TV is often referred to as a sociological experiment, but the Up series is as bona fide of a longitudinal study as pop culture has ever offered.

56 Up, the series’ eighth film and most recent entry, features all but one of the people interviewed in the first film. It aired last year in England and opened last week in America. While you feel the project’s prescience – our cultural ideal that, as Apted put it to me last week in the First Run Features office, “every life is worth sharing” – the film plays vastly different than what you’d expect from reality TV. It’s almost two and a half hours of soft-spoken, 56-year-old British people describing their quiet existences which, in most cases, seek to avoid drama as opposed to reveling in it. Take Jackie, who describes a string of familial deaths she’s endured since 49 Up, and whose mother and ex-husband have since been diagnosed with cancer. She is without a partner, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and her benefits have been taken away, forcing her to rely on her sons for support. And yet the tone of her segment is as upbeat as the rest. She likes her life, she says. We see her meeting men. She is, in fact, here to make friends.


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