Back to the Future: The Up Series

Back to the Future: The Up Series

The original conceit of the Up documentaries was that the class into which children were born would determine their success in life. Director Michael Apted has long since abandoned class as an overarching theme, but his later films still show how the socioeconomic circumstances in which the Up children were born and raised plainly affected their opportunities.

Jackie, Lynn, and Sue at age seven, as seen in 56 Up. (Courtesy of First Run Features.)

The final word in 56 Up—the latest installment in director Michael Apted’s long-running documentary series that follows the lives of a group of Britons—belongs to Tony. A gamesome cab driver and former trainee jockey, Tony operates as a stand-in for “new Britain,” with a holiday home in Spain, a rowdy bonhomie, and an up-by-the-bootstraps biography in keeping with the optimism of East London’s much-touted “regeneration.” With the air of a practiced showman, he takes the viewer to the places that were important to him as a child growing up in London’s East End forty-nine years before.

Here is the “fruit and veg” shop where Tony earned his first wage at the age of seven, making £10 a week. Here is the pub in Bethnal Green where Tony’s father would set up an orange-box on the pavement and finagle money from passersby with endless three-card tricks. And here is Tony near the old racetrack in Hackney Wick, where he and his dad would come to bet on the speeding blurs of greyhounds, and which fell into dereliction in 1997. In the final sequence, the camera pans out from a tight shot of Tony’s face to reveal London’s Olympic Stadium for the 2012 Games. “I’m here today and I cannot believe the transformation,” he says. “It’s a dream, it’s just spectacular, and that the torch from this Games should be now passed on to the East End, for a new generation to come through.”

56 Up and the documentaries that preceded it have their origins in Seven Up!, a 1964 show that became the germ for a generation-long series. Made by Granada Television, it was intended as a one-off special for a current affairs program—a profile of fourteen seven-year-olds who would go on to become, as the tinny voiceover in the first episode puts it, “the shop stewards and the executives of the year 2000.” The series’ title was a riff on the Jesuit maxim: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” Its structuring conceit was that the class into which these children were born would determine their success in life; that their childhoods were unwitting prophesies of their future prospects.

Apted was one of two researchers on the film charged with selecting the children in the space of three weeks. He attempted to find youngsters from a range of social backgrounds who would present well on camera, but admitted later that he would have secured a more diverse bunch had he known the show would roll on. The selection was skewed toward the top and bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum. Most of the children were from London, and several were from East London. Only four among the cohort were girls, and three of those girls were friends. Peter Davies and Neil Hughes attended the same school in Liverpool, and only one child was not white—Symon Basterfield, who had a black father and was raised by a white single mother.

Sometime after the show was screened, Apted resolved to revisit the lives of these children through film every seven years, amending the episode titles to reflect their age. He has done so ever since, although he abandoned class as an overarching theme long ago. “It’s stopped being a political document and has become more of a humanist document,” Apted told an interviewer in 2006. “The series honors the ordinary life; it deals with things we all deal with…The series doesn’t disown politics, but deals with politics via character.”

The dissolution of structural inequalities into notions of virtue and personal wherewithal was, of course, a rhetorical device deployed by Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government in Britain in the 1980s. Aside from the limitations of Apted’s original selection, part of the reason that “class” has become less overt as the series progressed is that the complexion and role of “class” in the British political conversation has undergone a radical transformation. Thatcher’s sustained and very successful attacks on the legitimacy of working-class institutions, her celebration of “middle-class” aspirations, and the smooth cooption of these ideas by New Labour mean that by 56 Up, the subjects’ sense of class identity is, at most, attenuated and complex.

Nevertheless, the socioeconomic circumstances in which the Up children were born and raised plainly affected their opportunities. The children from privileged backgrounds tended to end up at university and in professional jobs; the poorer children, with few exceptions, did not. But the series was always as much about the participants’ meditations on their own lives as it was about what happened and when. The drama lies in watching the subjects watch themselves—in seeing how they choose to make their way in the world, and how they assess the consequences of those choices. Reconciling a viewer’s perception of how each character has progressed with that character’s often divergent self-interpretation is a source of both tension and pleasure. It also highlights the disparity between class as a social reality and class as a sidelined concept.


One of the striking things about the latest batch of interviews is the equanimity with which the Up children accept where they have landed in life, while we, the viewers, are tempted to applaud strategic decisions or mull over forgone possibilities. Nick Hitchon, a farmer’s son from the Yorkshire Dales educated in a one-room village primary school, wins a scholarship to Oxford and goes on to become a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lynn Johnson marries young, works in a traveling library for children, and takes early retirement from her job as a special-needs educator in the East End when the department downsizes and she is laid off. At seven, Paul Kligerman, who is living in a children’s home, asks the interviewer, “What does a university mean?” He emigrates to Australia as a boy and at fifty-six is employed as a handyman at the retirement village where his wife works.

The spread of lives is considerable, but the silences still resound. Apted admitted in a 1986 interview that he “completely missed the feminist revolution.” Only one of the four women opted out of a career in order to raise a family—Suzy Lusk, a girl from a wealthy family whose father owned a 4,000-acre estate in Scotland. At fifty-six, her murmurs of dissatisfaction about this outcome are minor; she grumbles that she was never forced to push herself because she had no hurdles to overcome. All of the participants in the show appear to be heterosexual—although there is an adorable exchange in Seven Up!, when Jackie Bassett points to one of two boys (neither of whom was profiled) sitting in the middle of a cluster of girls, and claims that he loves Lynn. “No I don’t—I love him,” says the boy, clasping his friend by the neck, nuzzling up against his face, and planting a kiss on his cheek.

Apted’s choices about sequence are revealing. At thirty-five, forty-two, and forty-nine, he selected Neil to conclude the film. Viewers and journalists throughout the years appeared to find his story particularly moving. A gregarious and highly intelligent seven-year-old, Neil was the child of two teachers and grew up in a Liverpool suburb. He becomes noticeably more melancholy and anxious by twenty-one, by which time he has dropped out of university in Aberdeen and is living in a squat. At twenty-eight, he is homeless; at thirty-five, he is living on a council estate (public housing) on the Shetland Islands, the northernmost part of Britain. At fifty-six, he survives on state benefits and has been elected a local councilor in Cumbria. Neil admits at twenty-eight that he has always had a “nervous complaint,” something that is painfully evident to a viewer familiar with mental illness. The quaint Victorian wording with which he brackets the problem underscores the stigma that continues to hinder people from seeking treatment. (In the latest survey of community attitudes toward mental illness in England, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, 15.7 percent of respondents agreed that “one of the main causes of mental illness is a lack of self-discipline and willpower”; nearly 18 percent believed that people with a history of mental illness should be excluded from holding public office, and that mental health facilities “downgrade” neighborhoods.)

The middle-class promise of unfettered opportunity through hard work inclines Neil to refract his lack of obvious attainments through the lens of personal failure. “I’ve been completely unsuccessful in trying to find a paid career of any kind,” he says in 56 Up. He takes no pleasure in an invitation he received, and accepted, to give a political talk abroad in 2006. “Do you really think I would have been invited to Australia if they were aware that I was someone who lived on a few quid a week benefit, and has as much chance of changing the future of the United Kingdom as…someone who’s serving a lifetime jail sentence?” Neil stands out as the sole voice of dissent in the otherwise favorable reviews that the Up children give to their own lives at fifty-six.


For 56 Up, Apted decided to end with Tony. Tony’s is a tale of personal redemption that is pitched to the viewer as a proxy for national redemption. But what Tony says about Britain is not all reassuring. He observes that “not one person like me had a say in immigration—was there too many, was there too less” [sic]. He balks at Apted’s suggestion that he is racist. Although it is easy to agree with the director, it is important to consider Tony as part of a trend that Owen Jones identifies in his excellent book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Working-class people are most keenly aware, because of their own economic precariousness, of the consequences of competition with low-wage workers from around the world. Working-class racism is at least partly an outgrowth of that awareness, from which middle-class people are mostly insulated. In the absence of a strong, self-conscious working-class identity, racism like Tony’s can act as a surrogate narrative for explaining social ills.

Apted has been remarkably successful at keeping the group together. Although some have dropped in and out along the way, thirteen of the original fourteen appear in 56 Up. Tony seems to relish the public attention, recounting how another driver recently pulled up beside his cab, in which Buzz Aldrin happened to be sitting, and asked for Tony’s signature without registering the presence of the astronaut.

Contingency and control are not just postmodern riffs. Their presence or absence in the Up characters’ lives is symptomatic of real difference.

But many participants are forthright about their dislike of the show. This animus becomes most noticeable in recent productions, and among those the adults from middle- and upper-class backgrounds—perhaps reflecting a growing concern with privacy in the age of reality television as mass entertainment. As a child, Suzy is filmed in an outsized chintz armchair at an elite boarding school—prim, impeccably dressed, and radiating an air of complete indifference, both to her interviewer’s line of questioning and to what her responses might actually entail in her own life. As a chain-smoking, disaffected twenty-one-year-old who drifted to Paris before attending secretarial college, Suzy says that she had always hated doing the show and was pressured into it by her parents. At forty-nine, she is still there, but promising to bow out. At fifty-six, on camera, she confesses: “I don’t know what happened—I vowed I wasn’t going to do it. I suppose I have this ridiculous sense of loyalty to it even though I hate it. It’s like reading a bad book, I’ll see it through.”


Other subjects in 56 Up disown the series’ initial interest in class but, like Suzy, feel a sense of obligation to continue their self-commentary. It seems to be a duty to the telling rather than the tale. Such attention to the process of narrative construction makes the show legible as a form of “post-modernist realism,” to borrow from the late New York Times film critic Vincent Canby. The show displays other elements that push against the totems of unity and coherence that typically define “modern” storytelling: the open-ended nature of lives in progress, the flashbacks that communicate contingency, the tricks of memory, the seven-year absences punctuated by revelations of receding hairlines and blooming paunches. When the subjects push back against Apted’s questions—when Nick refuses to elaborate on his parents’ declining health, for example—we cannot sustain the illusion that we are getting the full story. We watch the Up adults attempt to retain a monopoly of interpretation, to pin down the proliferating meanings of their lives. Peter, the other boy from Liverpool, bowed out of the series after 28 Up, alarmed that he had been portrayed in the media as an “angry young red.” In 56 Up he is back, seemingly for the sole purpose of promoting his Liverpool-based band, the Good Intentions. The show makes clear the symbiotic relation between the teller, the tale, and the telling.

Contingency and control are not just postmodern riffs. Their presence or absence in the Up characters’ lives is symptomatic of real difference. What allows the less privileged children to be so sanguine about life’s knocks in adulthood is, in part, the fact that their more modest economic resources have rendered them more susceptible to circumstance, and less inclined to set their course by a star and follow it. At seven, the posh Andrew Brackfield correctly predicts that he will go to Charterhouse, an independent boarding school, and then Cambridge University. At twenty-one, he wants to be a successful solicitor, which is what he became. By contrast, the seven-year-old Symon, living at a charity home, says hesitatingly: “Well, before I’m old enough to get a job, I’ll just walk around, and see what I can find.” At twenty-one, when Symon is working in the freezer room of a sausage factory in London, Apted asks him if he has thought about “doing better jobs; aren’t you worth more than this?” With a slightly bemused half-smile, Symon replies, “No, I haven’t really; I suppose I just like hard work, I don’t know.” At fifty-six, Symon acknowledges that he “could have done a lot better” but puts it down, without regrets, to being “a lazy sod.” Unlike Neil, when things don’t work out, Symon does not weigh his satisfaction with life against opportunities missed.

For all its postmodern possibilities, the idea of the unified self enshrined in the Jesuit maxim tugs at the viewer in 56 Up, inviting us to see the lives of its protagonists through the seeds of character we observe in their seven-year-old selves. Bruce Balden stands out down the years for what appears to be a consistently humble, compassionate, and sincere nature. Educated from a young age at an elite, regimented boarding school, with a father in what was then Rhodesia, he is a solemn child who wants to be a missionary, to “go into Africa, and try and teach people who are not civilized to be, more or less, good.” At twenty-one, he is an avowed socialist who speaks of fighting against the temptations of self-satisfaction. At twenty-eight, he has graduated with a math degree from Oxford and chosen to teach in state schools in Britain. At thirty-five, he has taken a sabbatical to teach in Bangladesh. By forty-nine he is working at an independent school, St. Albans. He admits the job has required a compromise of his political principles. “I would say, have a million angels in front of every teacher who’s prepared to slog away at an inner-city comprehensive—make way, make way, this is somebody that is prepared to turn up each day and do that job.”


Like Bruce, John Brisby and Andrew were born to families with means and status. Andrew hardly rejects the benefits this afforded him, but John was always the staunchest defender of the rules that protected his prerogatives. “I think it’s not a bad idea to pay for schools,” he opines at seven, “because if we didn’t, schools would be so nasty and crowded.” At the beginning of Seven Up!, we see the children at the zoo, watching a polar bear. Some are throwing food. John looks perturbed. “Stop it! Stop it at once!” he declares in perfectly crisp, schoolmasterly tones. Andrew’s blasé reply is that “I know there’s no feeding but it doesn’t really matter.” By the age of fourteen, Andrew acknowledges that it is “undesirable” that he has been given opportunities denied to others; John, who admits he is “more reactionary than most,” thinks such inequality is only wrong to the extent that people abuse the privileges they have been given.

By the time they are fifty-six, Andrew seems unconcerned about his status and comfortably settled in an upper-middle-class family life with an unpretentious wife, Jane. Meanwhile John, a barrister and Queen’s Counsel at the bar in London whose two best friends are government ministers, continues to rage against how the series has insulted him. “I think that the premise on which the program was based, namely that England was still in the grips of a Dickensian class system, was outmoded even in 1964,” he claims. “Insofar as the program touches me I think it’s a complete fraud, as if it all appeared as part of some indestructible birthright.” John’s anxiety flows from his refusal—unlike Andrew—to dissolve himself into the catchall category of “middle class.” Of all the adults in 56 Up, John is most conscious of the existence of class, but not on the series’ terms.

Are these threads of character an illusion, superimposed from the future? Or is the notion of enduring character real, and subject to the vagaries of circumstance and the internal capacity for self-reinvention? Part of what makes the Up series such compelling viewing is its distillation of what Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, calls the “anterior future”; the time-lapse footage and self-commentary bring viewers face to face with a present that is now passed, and a future whose outcome we know but that is still unmade by the person in the moving image. It makes us see that our own present will soon be someone’s past. Death, for this reason, lingers at the borders of the whole enterprise.


Sally Davies is a writer and associate editor at Nautilus, a new literary magazine of science and philosophy.


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