No one has died yet. That's the good news. The bad news is that this seventh chapter of the landmark 7 Up documentary series, which is chronicling the entire lives of several ordinary Britons, may well be the final entry. To hear the series' long-time director Michael Apted tell it, the patience, personal attention and constant persuasion needed to convince the film's subjects to sit for their psychological portrait every seven years means the series is not likely to survive beyond him. He will be 72 when it comes time to do 56 Up. When it does finally come to an end, this series will be hailed as a crowning achievement of cinema – one that stretches the muscles of the medium in a way that only a handful of other projects have. Originally conceived as an indictment of the British class system (half the children chosen were poor and half rich) it has grown beyond its original mandate into a visceral study of humanity itself, capturing its frailties, potential and inexorable motion towards the finish line.
None of the children, who were first filmed in 1964, tumbling on a playground and offering cheeky commentary on any subject you like, have gone on to have noticeably 'big' lives. One became a wig-wearing barrister in the British court system, and seems perpetually embarrassed that he doesn't have anything dramatic to report to us. Another became a professor and moved to America, causing his British accent to be mostly eroded away. Another became an Australian at an early age. The poor kids have by and large become lower-middle class adults and remain within shouting distance of the Eastend neighborhoods where they were born. One notable exception is Tony, the scrappy hustler who dreamed of being a jockey as a child and later settled into the disappointment of being a taxi driver. Vocally dissatisfied with the demographic changes that have taken place in the Eastend since his boyhood, Tony and his wife have staked a claim in a Little England area of Spain. "It's 96 percent English here," he defiantly tells us.
Both the upper and lower class children have proven to be ideal subjects over the years, bringing to their interviews a kind of effortless honesty and easy articulation that keeps us interested from beginning to end. This especially applies to Neil, the loner who Apted calls his "big gun" in the series. Once homeless and perpetually on the verge of being overwhelmed by the demands of society, Neil's interview appropriately comes at the very end of most 7 Up films, including this one. Seen earlier living in a council flat on the Sheltland Islands, he sadly noted that he was "getting more and more used to this lifestyle," meaning the lifestyle of a societal outcast. When asked if he worries about his sanity he considers for a moment and then responds: "Others worry about it." In this latest episode, Neil has found some solace in both politics -- he serves on a local district council as a Liberal Democrat -- and religion. He prefers the Old Testament, because "in the Old Testament, God is very unpredictable and that's how he's been in my life."
Anyone who has seen the earlier episodes knows that some of the children glimpsed at age seven grew up wanting nothing to do with the project. One boy named Charles dropped out of the series at age 21 and has never returned. He merits only the briefest notation in the film, like the black sheep in a family photo album. Apted always makes an effort to get the drop-outs back in, while teasing others with questions like "Have you had enough of 7 Up yet?" Some of them clearly have. They've gotten crankier as they've grown older, as people tend to do, and health problems are also beginning to pile up, which doesn't bode well for many more episodes after this one. Although Apted doesn't claim to have a grand plan for rounding out the series, the question has to be asked: do we really want to go all the way to the end of the line? 77 Up? 84 Up? At some point, the series would begin to be part-biography and part-obituary, which would be terribly depressing.
In 49 Up, we get to see peoples' lives flash before our eyes, literally, like pages in a flipbook. A confident, youthful smile in one film may be lost forever by the next episode, thanks to tragedy or simply a hardening of attitudes toward life. A subject who has an angry, disjointed outlook on life may manifest it one way in one time period, then another way in a different time period. Some take the most harmless questions and turn them inside out, as an excuse to joust with the interviewer. Others take the entire project in stride. There's hardly any vehicle I know of besides these films where we can study a group of people from their earliest days -- collecting data on their hopes, their dreams, their prejudices, their fears, and their defects -- and then compare that data against another sample taken after seven more years of life have gone by. Then do it again, and again, and again, until an amazingly full picture of a three-dimensional life emerges. It's not overstating the case to say that the 7 Up series has a value that goes above and beyond entertainment, and director Apted should be commended for his lifelong commitment to the series. 49 Up is one of the best films of the year.