The ninth edition of the monumental Up series of documentaries aired in Britain and Australia this June. Produced by Granada television for the Britain’s ITV, the first edition of the series was telecast in 1964. The original producers set out with a quote from Ignatius Loyola as their hypothesis: “Give me the child until seven and I will show you the man.” Politically committed, they wanted to demonstrate in particular that the socioeconomic prospects of British citizens are foreordained at childhood. To this end, they selected fourteen seven-year-olds, of which four girls, from various income backgrounds from across Britain, and posed them questions related to money, school, romance and future plans. The producers and director Michael Apted, have visited the same set of participants every seven years since the first episode to see whether their original theory was indeed correct, whether the master key to the adult was still the seven-year-old.

The Up series is not unique in this respect, having itself inspired several remakes around the world. There have been many other instances in cinema where the same set of on-screen participants have been brought together after long periods of time by the same filmmaking outfit. Truffaut’s group of films on the Antoine Doinel character featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud is also a documentary on the actor aging from the reticent teenager of The 400 Blows (1959) to the mature thirty-five-year-old of Love on the Run (1979). James Benning made a shot-for-shot remake of his film, One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), twenty-seven years later with the same people and locations. Long-running franchises such as the Harry Potter films (2001-11) double as records of their actors’ physical and emotional maturation. A more recent example, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) was periodically shot over 14 years with the same group of actors who portray a family in the film. Not to mention numerous movie sequels and spinoffs where performers reprise their original roles.

The special force of the Up series, on the other hand, derives from its social, historical and human value. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”, wrote Kierkegaard. The participants of the Up films are real people living out their lives, figuring things out as they go along. As they approach the twilight of their existence, the films accrue more and more meaning, narrativizing their lives for themselves and us. In their own way, these films chart the changing political landscape of Britain – from the orthodox conservatism of the early-sixties, through the international cultural tumult of the seventies and the economic upheavals of the Thatcher era, to the promises of the European Union and, now, a post-Brexit period. When it started out, the series wanted to illustrate the thesis that class position in Britain was predetermined by one’s birth and that social mobility was well-nigh impossible. However, as the series unfolded, reality turned out to be more complex: Tony, the East End taxi driver, rose up to middle-class while Neil, with his middle-class upbringing, fell way down the ladder.

Throughout the Up films is this dialectic between theory and reality. There are questions that the first telecast raised that every subsequent episode keeps coming back to: the participant’s financial situation, their relationship with the opposite sex, their schooling system, their perception of other social classes and their impression of the series itself. In the initial episodes, Apted (only fifteen years older than his interviewees) seems to have the answers preconceived in his mind. In the second and third editions (1970, 1977), he handpicks passages from the interviews that seem to suggest that Tony will likely get mixed-up in a betting racket while the private school boys, John, Andrew and Charles, will cruise through their check-listed lives. It didn’t exactly turn out to be so. The social-minded Bruce is now settled into a middle-class life while the Oxford-alumnus John is involved in philanthropical work. These strange turns of reality soften the filmmaker’s convictions and the later Up films open up to the nuances of human existence. The progression of the series, then, coincides with Apted’s own intellectual and sentimental development.

With the series gaining popularity, the participants, too, cease to be isolated, passive subjects of study, their lives now touched by the exposure the films give them. The great learning of documentary filmmaking in the 20th century is also that of 20th century physics: that the observer impacts the observed through the very act of observation. Thanks to his appearance in the series, Tony, an amateur actor, gets bit parts in films as a cabbie. When Neil’s down and out, letters of support pour in. Peter, a lad from Liverpool, was subject to tabloid humiliation for his criticism of the Thatcher government. He dropped out of the series for four episodes, but came back in 56 Up (2012) to promote his band. John used the series to raise awareness about his charities. The interviewees become more vocal about the series as it progresses: in 56 Up, Lynn, one of the London girls, shreds Apted for being blind to the women’s lib movement and for trying to box her into a housewife type in 21 Up (1977); John objects to Apted’s original portrayal of his him as traditionally upper-class and Tony, to his depiction as a potential felon.

As the years go by, the mist of mortality that hangs over the series becomes thicker. French film critic André Bazin likened filmmaking to Egyptian mummification in that it preserves a slice of a person’s existence for eternity. Conversely, every photographic portrait carries with it a mark of death. A future viewer of the Up films – their ideal viewer – will inevitably be burdened by a tragic consciousness. Watching these films end-to-end is to be aware of the fate of these participants, the hope and wonderment in the children’s eyes slowly giving way to the weary wisdom of their adult selves. Like the director, the viewer will then have recognized herself in these lives, in the transience of these lives. Therein lies the ultimate lesson of the Up series, an unfinished work that will end when the last of its interviewees passes away: though shaped by forces larger than itself, every life is irreducibly unique, worthy of attention in itself; but every life can only be understood in generalities, through frameworks larger than itself.


[An edited version published in The Hindu]

The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Michael Apted
Bond, James Bond: Pierce Brosnan
Arch Rival: Renard (Robert Carlyle)
Bond Girl: Christmas Jones (Denise Richards)

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

The next piece in the huge series would be The World Is Not Enough and follows Bond’s mission to Europe to investigate the rat in the family of Richard King, the wealthy oil giant with a project of a lifetime on the anvil, after his murder at the MI6 headquarters itself. Bond tracks down the person responsible to be Renard, a terrorist whose accident has rendered him incapable of any physical feeling. As Bond tries to restore the hurt pride of both M and the organization, he stumbles across the truth about King’s murder. Bond, in the process, meets an obviously and phenomenally miscast Denise Richards as Christmas Jones (Get ready for the cheesy gags), the nuclear physicist (cough, cough) who tugs along. Like GoldenEye (1995) Bond is caught in another moral conflict as he has to choose between cold formalities of duty and warmth of relationships.

This version scores on the action sequences with lots of eye-candy involving both incredible computer graphics and genuine stunts. However, Renard’s character, which could have been converted into one of the best Bond villains, is wasted primarily to share his screen space with his sweet heart.  One of the best soundtracks of the series features a spectacular title track by Garbage (!).This one definitely shows that Bond is not an anachronism and is inching towards the new generation.