The Up Series is an episodic documentary spanning 49 years produced by British television company Granada and directed by Michael Apted. The eight-movie series follows a group of Britons beginning when they were seven years old and now depicting them as 56 year olds. The concept of the films is to revisit the original characters once every seven years and depict their life paths. The Up Series is the first of this sort of documentary series, seemingly proving a person’s class is hard to change.

Originally, the filmmakers were trying to give a glance of British social class change through this movie. In fact, it shows much more,  seeing not only the character’s social evolution, but their lifestyle changes and the changes in filmmaking technology and approach through the years.

Picture of Nick at age 42 in 1999

Nick at age 42 in 1999

There are only two characters in the films who changed their social status dramatically, Neil and Nick. Neil’s path was the most surprising one. He was born in Liverpool and dreamed of going to Oxford University when he was young, but ended up at the lesser University of Aberdeen. Then, everything turned straight down. He was a construction worker when he was 21, became homeless at 28, and mentally unstable at 35. The director even asked him if he thought he was going mad. Fortunately, he seemed to found a path for himself at 42 and became a local councilor. Neil was the only one who went down from his class. The only one who went up was Nick. He was born on a farm, but went to Oxford University and eventually became a nuclear fusion researcher in America, with a big house, lovely wife, and an enviable life.

Most of the interviewees stayed in their original class. Andrew, John, Charles (who stopped participating after  age 28), and Suzy were the representatives of the upper class. They had mapped their paths through life even when they were just seven, and more or less followed those plans. They had a lot of resources when they were growing up; they had private teachers to teach them different things and they were giving a lot of thought about the society and themselves. Tony, Sue, Jackie, and Lynn were the representatives of the working class. None of them went to the college and, based on their different attitudes toward life, their paths were quite different. Tony had his dreams, and followed them well; Lynn and Jackie met some obstacles and seemed stuck in place for a long time; Sue had obstacles too, but she handled them well and seems to enjoy her life more and more along the way.

The director tries to play the role of a historian, viewing and describing all the characters’ lives in a calm and objective way. However, the films raise some ethical problems, such as Neil’s acknowledging he was having mental problems. When the director tries to ask more about those problems, Neil changes the topic. But the director kept trying to ask him more about the issue. Should the director have given more privacy to Neil, or should he kept asking? Also, because the films are shot for just seven days every seven years, if there are some significant life events that happen in between shooting, it is hard to catch the real thoughts and reactions of the moment,  as people’s memories change as time goes on.

The Up Series

Characters from the Up Series

What makes this series most controversial is the question of what these films are trying to present. Just as Nick says in 56 Up: “They film me doing all this draft stuff and it’s seven days out of every seven years . . . it’s all this excitement . . . and then they present this tiny little snippet and it’s like, ‘Is that all there is to me?’” Also, whether the cast of the films are typical enough to represent all their peers in the UK, or even just in their own class is questionable. In fact, the main reason why some of the interviewees dropped out of one or more of the films is related to this question. They needed meaning in order to keep doing the films, and felt it was lacking.

However, for the rest of us, the most precious element of this series, is that it makes us think of ourselves, how our family influences us, what direction our choices may lead us to, and the most importantly, who we want to become. We never know what kind of effect an event will have on us in the future, but because the life is long, one single event can also be viewed as just a small part. In the end, Nick give meaning to the series, “The idea of looking at a bunch of people over time and how they evolve was a really nifty idea. It isn’t a picture really of the essence of Nick or Suzy; it’s a picture of every man.”

About Jessica Jia