Michael Apted's Up series —the seventh installment of which, 49 Up, was shown on PBS this week—was born in 1964. Produced by Granada Television's "World in Action" documentary team, the first episode, Seven Up, was irresistible, as were its stars: a socially diverse group of 20 British 7-year-olds, the cohort from which the "executive and shop steward of 2000" would be drawn, the narrator explained. The children, won over by a kindly off-camera questioner who didn't condescend, shared their views and a bit of their souls. They spoke about their hopes: The earnest Bruce, from a private boarding school in Surrey, confessed his desire to "go into Africa to teach people who are not civilized to be, more or less, good." They revealed their philosophies of life: "Is it important to fight?" asked irrepressible Tony from the East End of London. "Yes!" They offered their opinions of the rich ("They're nuts"—Tony again—"You just have to punch them") and the poor ("I don't think much of their accents," sniffed upper-crust John, adding that he didn't mind the people). With especially bright eyes, they described their plans for the future: "When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut," volunteered Neil from Liverpool, the most adorable live wire of them all. "But if I can't be an astronaut, I think I'll be a coach driver."
It was a one-time "glimpse of Britain's future," the voice-over told a class-stratified nation gathered around the telly and beginning to think anew about social inequality. There was no inkling of what lay ahead: Apted, a twentysomething researcher at Granada when he lucked into substituting for the vacationing director of the first episode, has returned every seven years to interview the original participants. More than half of them, plus or minus a couple in various episodes, have stuck with him for what has become a ritual: a long talk about their lives over the intervening years with the camera running, and a brief tour of their current situations with the camera following them in the garden, say, or the classroom. Snippets of their younger selves from earlier episodes are spliced into each of the segments, which Apted sequences with variety and pacing in mind.
With an ever-larger world watching since 28 Up, the dozen or so stalwarts have become warier and wearier. To get them to open up, Apted has had to work harder at "wearing them down," as he has described his approach: "I just shut up and let them talk and don't give them artifice and am prepared to roll with the silence." Yet more than 40 years later, with 49 Up, the remarkable series has become anything but old and staid. That is not to say it has hit its stride, exactly. After every episode, there has been doubt about whether Apted will manage to corral them all again. There is no overt mission to lend the series momentum, either. As a representative social chronicle, the project has been handicapped from the start by a sample low on middle-class children and girls (though the blurring of class lines, as scrappy East Enders bourgeoisify and snooty public-school chaps mellow, has been fascinating). As a distinctive portrait of the British counterpart to the baby boom generation, it falls short, too; the cast of characters is too small.
So, why is it that the series remains, quite literally, irresistible—to Apted, his audience, and his participants themselves? Why do Tony, Jackie, Lynn, and Sue—whose paths up from the working class have been bumpy, especially for the women—keep opening their doors to Apted? How come Paul and Symon—both of whom got a bleak start in a children's home and have wandered far since then—haven't slipped away for good? What moves gentle Bruce (who did go to Africa) and Nicholas—a farm boy from Yorkshire curious to "know all about the moon" who has ended up teaching physics at the University of Wisconsin—to share loneliness and setbacks on screen? Wouldn't it be truer to type for Suzy, Andrew, and John—far more buttoned-up now than they were as voluble young snobs in posh pre-prep schools—to demur politely? How can Apted bear to keep exposing Neil, whose life took a downward turn at 21, to probing? And why do I, and so many others, feel so undone by, and indebted to, this singular project—and to these 12 people whom we've come to know in a way we know no one else?
In 49Up, these questions, long an undercurrent, are suddenly the crux of the matter—for Apted's subjects, and for their audience and director as well: a midlife crisis, you might call it, in a one-of-a-kind genre. The obvious impetus for this self-reflexive swerve of concern about the project itself, and its role in the lives of its participants and viewers, is the advent of reality TV. It's "the big gorilla in the room between 42 Upand 49 Up," as Apted has put it. "I think it's really confused some of the people in it. They wonder 'What is this? Is this a reality show? Is it high-entertainment? Should we be making tons of money? Are we being exploited?' " John, in a bitter outburst, insists he sees no difference: "It's like Big Brother or I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!" Although his wife protests, he persists, in evident pain: "Every seven years, a little pill of poison is injected. … It's actually real-life TV with the added bonus that you see people grow old, lose their hair, get fat. Fascinating, I'm sure, but does it have any value, that's a different question."
Apted's series indeed thrives on voyeurism, but of a rare and valuable kind, thanks to his commitment to capturing on film just such ambivalence about the enterprise. In search of authenticity, not some illusion of reality and spontaneity, he makes room for his characters' (and by implication, his own) struggles to navigate the demands of publicity and privacy as they pursue a challenge he and they stumbled onto: the challenge of discovering a sense of integrity and of intimacy amid the flux of time and in the face of unbidden intrusions that bring fame and confusion. That's Apted's quest in his film, as it is their own quest in their lives. In an exhibitionistic, celebrity-obsessed era when crowds compete to be on Survivor or The Bachelor, it might sound quaint. Yet with every episode of Apted's series, the dogged pursuit of a kind of personal dignity seems increasingly urgent—less dated and British, deeper and more universal.
The examined life: You won't find that on reality TV. You may forget about it in your own frenetic days, or avoid it. No one ever said it was easy to face up to just how fleeting life is, how ineluctably yet unpredictably time changes us, how inevitably the limitless potential of childhood is eroded. Gently, Apted goads a dozen people whom he has described as a kind of extended family to do just that, for us and with us. And while John, and Jackie, too, lash out in 49 Up, feeling violated by the scrutiny, Nicholas says what we want to hear: that for him, not just for us, it has been "extremely important," however difficult. "It's an incredibly hard thing to be in and I can't even begin to describe how emotionally draining and wrenching it is just to make the film and do the interviews. And that's even when I'm pretending nobody else is watching."
In the end, it's Neil who breaks your heart but is also Apted's beacon. The buoyant boy in Seven Up had become haunted at 21 and homeless at 28. Yet for this articulate man—in agonized search of "the springs of life" and perhaps some piece of happiness—the interviews with Apted seem to have been a reckoning that, however harrowing, has perhaps helped rescue him from drift. "I see that life comes once and it's quite short," he says now, as Apted gives him the closing scene. In his quietly deliberate way, Neil tells a story of a bright butterfly that paused beside him while he sunbathed, opening and closing its wings. Apted shows us the running 7-year-old Neil, arms churning, and lets the gaunt 49-year-old Neil put into words a spirit that has stayed alive in the film, and in its unwitting stars: a readiness to open and reopen the experience of "just being what you are, realizing that life goes on all around and there are millions of other living creatures who have to find their part as well."