Back in 1964, as part of a special for the UK's World in Action television series, director Michael Apted (along with WIA founder Tim Hewat) documented the lives of several seven-year-olds. The program, inspired by the Jesuit saying "Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man", attempted to uncover whether or not the children's lives were already pre-determined by their backgrounds and the rigid class system of 1960s Britain. Little did they know this one special (and subsequent follow-up films) would become wildly popular, winning several awards and changing the face of "the documentary" as we knew it. In fact, some might refer to the Up Series as our very first taste of reality television, a phenomenon that would reach its peak in-between 42 Up and Apted's latest visit with old friends, 49 Up.
For the past five decades, Apted has re-visited the same group of people (minus one or two who have dropped out along the way) in order to show us what became of their lives, their dreams, their marriages and their families. In this latest edition of the series, Apted updates us on 13 of the original cast (all 49-years-old) to see how their lives have changed in the past seven years.
What's great about 49 Up is that it's not necessary to have seen all of the previous films. While visiting with each person, Apted provides various clips of them at seven, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42 and now, 49, so that the audience (familiar with the series or not) are brought up to date on each and every single individual. Whether they're a wide-eyed, optimistic seven-year old with big plans for the future, a somewhat disheveled, quiet and angry teenager or a 49-year-old content with what they've become (though obviously upset that their life has been out there for the whole world to watch) -- it's all inside 49 Up.
Though the original intentions of the series were to focus more on class and how growing up in different neighborhoods under different circumstances would affect each child, Apted's films have evolved and now it's more about the people and how the events from their past have shaped them into the adults they are today. As Sue (a one-time single mum who, within the past seven years, has met a man and settled down with him) explains, "It's not all about family and career, it's about what's in the middle."
At a little over two hours, 49 Up does feel a bit slow at times. As one person put it, "it's like reality television with the added bonus that you get to see people grow old and get fat." A good amount of the original cast is happy, surrounded by spouses, children and grandchildren. They view the Up Series experience as one that's been very fulfilling and, hey -- what a great home movie, right? Others, however, are more jaded. They're sick of the series and tired of sharing their personal lives with millions of other people, as well as having to re-live the bad choices of their past over and over again every seven years. Regardless of who they are and how they feel, the fascinating aspect here is that we can all relate. There's at least one thing in each of these people that allows you, as a viewer, to connect with. No one is modeling in a bikini outside a mansion in Malibu, hooking up in a hot tub or deserted on some island in the middle of the Pacific. This is real life. This, my friends, is reality.