The following notes on Michael Apted's 63 Up were written by Matt St. John, PhD Candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. The Cinematheque will present the only area theatrical screenings of 63 Up on Friday, February 21 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, February 22 at 2 p.m., in our regular venue at 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free for both screenings!
By Matt St. John
Across the nine installments of Michael Apted’s Up series, Tony, an affable East Ender and aspiring jockey-turned-taxi driver, has offered countless jokes and anecdotes, but the most memorable of all might be the story of his chance encounter with the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. In 56 Up, Tony describes a day when he happened to pick up Aldrin in his cab, and a passerby asked for an autograph. Tony conveyed the request to Aldrin, but he was shocked when the fan clarified that they wanted an autograph from the documentary participant, not his astronaut passenger.
Tony and the other subjects of the Up films may not have walked on the moon, but they are widely recognized after first entering the public eye in 1964’s Seven Up! and returning for updates (in most cases) every seven years since. If you’re new to the series, it may seem like a lot to catch up on. Fortunately, Apted and Kim Horton, who has edited the films since the fourth entry 28 Up, integrate archival footage from previous films into each interview segment, refreshing familiar audiences on the participants’ stories and bringing new ones up to speed.
Granada Television’s initial film Seven Up! profiles fourteen British children who are seven years old. The film includes interviews about their plans and goals, as well as observational footage when they spend a day visiting a zoo and a playground. Inspired by the Jesuit proverb “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” Seven Up! posits a central question of whether the children’s class backgrounds will determine the trajectories of their lives, but the scope of the series has expanded from this limited frame of the class system. Michael Apted, a researcher on the first film and the director of the other eight films, has returned every seven years to profile the participants, although they do not always agree to appear (of the fourteen original children, Charles has not been in any of the films since 21 Up, and four others have declined to participate at least once). Apted’s questions still touch on class often, but the focus has gradually broadened, resulting in a documentary series about the choices and changes that have shaped a set of ordinary lives, from the significant to the seemingly mundane.
Over the years, Apted and his subjects have discussed innumerable topics related to their lives. Conversations have covered local theater, libraries, home remodels, Bulgarian charity work, arthritis, divorce, and death. Sometimes Apted and Horton must disregard the recommendations of newer producers in order to include the elements of daily life that have defined the texture of the series. In a 2019 New York Times Magazine profile, they recalled their frustration at a note that Sue’s dog should be cut from the film. With so many subjects and their wide range of hobbies, interests, and experiences, it’s no surprise that fans of the series have favorite “characters.” The trials and accomplishments of Neil’s life have created a compelling dramatic narrative for audiences to catch up on every seven years, and Nick is certainly a local favorite, a professor who lives in Madison and has been interviewed here for every film since 28 Up. The cast has expanded over time, with the wives, husbands, kids, friends, and pets of the original participants appearing across installments, often taking part in the interviews themselves.
Apted’s questions and the taxing nature of the project in general strain his relationships with the subjects at some points. In multiple films, Jackie has understandably confronted him about the portrayal of her and the other working-class women. John will no longer speak with Apted and is instead interviewed by producer Claire Lewis, who has worked on the series since 28 Up. Like any long-lasting relationships, Apted and his subjects have their ups and downs, but most of them display a warmth and familiarity in their convervations with him, even when they fight, and especially as they have grown older.
Aging appears as a major concern of the reflective interviews in 56 Up, but that theme becomes more central in 63 Up. This film finds the participants facing their own mortality, not just that of their parents or loved ones (a trauma that’s weighed on the series since 28 Up and 35 Up, when multiple participants experienced the death of a parent). It’s a new and necessary direction for the films. Mortality seems an inevitable theme, as the series continues into the later adulthood of its participants, but the shift is still a shock. Apted and his subjects confront this change with sadness and candor, maintaining the intimate interview style that has marked the series for over five decades. While 63 Up remains extremely personal, it also addresses national problems and politics more directly than most of the films. The uncertainty of Brexit is a thread throughout the film, as well as concerns about opportunities for future generations, like Sue’s comments about the struggling National Health Service.
As the Up series has progressed, the popularity of the documentary project and its participants has also been mentioned more frequently in the films. The 2019 premiere of 63 Up on British television was even accompanied by a new promotional special titled 7 Up & Me, which observes a number of celebrities, including Richard E. Grant and Michael Sheen, watching and responding to clips from the program. The series enjoys a popularity usually unreached by fairly sober documentaries, and it has long been highly acclaimed, with Roger Ebert once calling it the “noblest project in cinema history.” In a move familiar to long-time viewers of the series, which often sees participants amending their comments from past films, Ebert later referenced that statement in his review of 56 Up: “I am older now and might refrain from such hyperbole. But we are all older now, and this series proves it in a most deeply moving way.”
Journalists have repeatedly asked Apted about the possibility of more Up films, and his responses have been mostly hopeful, although he has referenced his own age, now 79. In an interview with Slant Magazine, he said, “I’d like to go on for as long as I am above ground.” As for the participants, they regularly express ambivalence or even disdain toward the series, but most of them keep returning. Regardless of where the series goes from 63 Up, if indeed it does go anywhere, Apted’s films stand as a uniquely ambitious project. The films are remarkable for their scope and their unmatched attention to ordinary lives –– lives that have been bravely (if sometimes hesitantly) shared, ever since fourteen children happened to be selected by their teachers and a television crew.