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Film | Opinion

Hear Me Out: The 'Up' series is the greatest documentary serial of all time

“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”.

It feels like some time ago that the documentary filmmaking form was considered something of an old man’s format, reserved for educational monochrome WWII lectures and other such historical documents. More recently, however, likely due to the assistance of ‘factual’ reality TV, the documentary format has been given a new lease of life, with the true-crime content of Netflix constantly attracting viewership from across the globe. 

It’s worth remembering, however, that there is a world of documentary filmmaking outside of such flashy tales of crime and lavish mystery, with the medium having long-dabbled in peculiar and remarkably thought-provoking tales that inspire the very same amount of interest. One such documentary is the serial Up programme, created by the late Michael Apted, a seminal series that explores the existential nature of ageing.  

Named by Roger Ebert as an “an inspired, even noble use of the film medium”, even putting the fourth instalment on his list of the best films of all time, the series enlisted fourteen participants of varying social backgrounds from across the UK and tracked their progress through life every seven years. Starting with their early stages of development from seven to 14, the series went on to cover their years of complicated adolescence from 21 to 28, as well as their development into young adults, mothers, fathers and grandparents from the age of 35 and beyond. 

Beginning in 1964, the series was started as a one-off analysis of the impact of the class system on children, questioning whether their social boundaries decide their future positions, or if the individual drive can defy this stereotype.  As the series continued, however, the focus quickly switched from a more sweeping social analysis to a deeper  psychological one.

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As a breathing, ever-improving, series, Michael Apted and his team were dedicated to representing their participants in an accurate light. This was illustrated by three working-class girls, Jackie, Lynn and Sue, who are grouped together as one collective ‘person’, defined by their shared social class alone from Seven-Up! in 1964 to 21-Up in 1978. At 21 Jackie vocally shuns questions about her social background, then at 28 she outright states that “I don’t even think , to be honest, we consciously think about it until this programme comes up once every seven years”.

As the class-angle quickly became less interesting and theoretically redundant, the psychology and life stories of the individuals became the focus, with Apted all but abandoning the ethnographic perspective during 35-Up in 1991, with each of the three girls getting an extended individual analysis. By surrendering this original angle, the participants became free of their pre-supposed and expected boundaries, able to now express themselves individually without the presence of Apted’s authoritative class-based probing. 

Seeing each of the 14 participants age before our eyes is a surprisingly revolutionary thing to behold, particularly in an entertainment industry that can conjure filmmakers’ most insane daydreams. As Ebert rightly acknowledges, there’s a “noble” truth to the project that (eventually) feels free of cynicism as it explores how the bumps and surprises of life can morph us all as individuals. 

One participant that has long-inspired viewers is Neil was one of two boys from a working-class area of Liverpool. With typically ambitious dreams of becoming an astronaut within infancy, this image of success and cosmic adventure soon dwindled into the reality of adolescence, where Neil faced the sobering truths of life and true happiness. Ageing quickly, at twenty-eight Neil looks weathered and downtrodden, a far cry from the spritely and confident boy we see at the series’ inception.

Through depression and isolation in the Shetland islands, Neil is finally able to access a sense of inner peace, with the participant working with documentarian Michael Apted to work out how he got to this peculiar place in his own life. His hard-fought story well represents the efforts of the show in reflecting the lives of those who are so commonly shunned in modern reality TV, and indeed contemporary Britain, with his documented life telling a truly inspiring story.

Technically, with the last episode of the series having aired in 2019, the Up documentary is still an ongoing filmmaking experiment, however, with the passing of long-time showrunner Michael Apted in 2021, it’s unlikely it will reach its destined conclusion. Even still, with nine episodes having tracked the lives of 14 children from the ages of seven to 63, the Up series is an endearing, baffling triumph of filmmaking.

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