Since last Christmas, my wife and I have been totally absorbed in the series of films often referred to as the “Up” movies. The seven films, all but the first produced and directed by Michael Apted, document the lives of 14 British boys and girls, all born in 1956, who are from a variety of social and economic classes. In the first film, Seven Up, we meet them at age seven. We revisit them at 14 in Seven Plus Seven, and continue to revisit them every seven years until the most recent film, last year’s 49 Up.
There are, no doubt, viewers who have watched these films in real time, that is, viewing Seven Up in 1964, and then waiting for the next installment every seven years. For my wife and me, we literally traveled in a time machine, witnessing in about two whirlwind months, the first five decades of these people’s lives. We’ve shared the big things: their dreams, marriages, divorces, successes, disappointments, children and grandchildren; and the little things such as weight gain and graying hair.
In every film, Apted replays brief and increasingly familiar snippets of each person from the previous films, reminding us what they looked like and what was happening in their lives, after which he switches to the present. Once viewers get used to this format, the level of anticipation grows for each film, in our case, leading to almost endless conversations about what will be in store for them next time around. It’s been a fascinating and compelling ride, but now it’s over, unless Apted makes another film in seven years.
Included on the last DVD is an interview with Apted. He is asked about the sociological and historical significance of the films. He replies that his earlier goals, to learn about the British class system and how much we can predict about the future lives of children by observing them at age seven, seems to have fallen by the wayside. What has emerged for him is the realization that, “I think what I have done is dignify the lives of ordinary people.”
That comment resonated with me. I’ve always felt in my work as a chronicler of life in North Adams and other small cities and towns, and even in my songwriting and poetry, that I am trying to do the same thing. Looking at myself, my parents and my earlier ancestors, I see ordinary lives that have been lived and endured, day to day, during extraordinary times. I find this more valuable to the study of history than reading about the lives of the privileged and famous. I highly recommend these films, not only as entertainment, but as a resource for the public schools.