My post the other day about The Truman Show inspired me to see if 56 Up was streaming on Netflix yet. Since it is, I treated myself to watching it yesterday.
The premise of the Up series (of which 56 is the latest installment) begins with the philosophy of “Show me a boy at 7 and I will show you the man.” Director Michael Apted initially interviewed a collection of British children at the age of 7, showcasing a slice of British life and classism. This series continued to follow some of these children, checking in with them every 7 years. Through this series, we’ve watched them grow up, seen their opinions and attitude change with age, watched their successes and failures. Even though we only see them every 7 years, somehow they feel like they are our friends and family.
But they’re not.
Each installment is edited in a very creative way that highlights some aspect of British society–the inherent classism, political attitudes, etc. Through this careful editing, Apted or someone one his team, makes a statement at the expense of these people. And that has been the criticism against the series, coming from, among other sources, the subjects themselves. Some recognize that they only participate in the program at this point because it is an opportunity for them to advertise for their cause. One man, Nick, has said that he’s going to be remembered for the series, not for his work in Physics, and finds that a little sad.
In a way, Michael Apted has given us a real live version of The Truman Show. We see these people for a short period, but we watch their stories unfold with the same engrossed entertainment that we watch reality television, that the people watched Truman’s story unfold.
But, just as with Truman’s story, there is a tragic side, and that’s the way that the series has impacted the lives of the people involved. One man, Peter, left the series after 28 because there was a negative publicity campaign about his comments (seemingly spun to be a criticism against Margaret Thatcher) that impacted his work. (He came back at 56 to use the platform to promote his band.) Another man, Tony, a professional cabbie, told a story in 56 about a time when he was driving Buzz Aldrin and another cabbie asked for his autograph. Tony assumed he meant Buzz, but the cabbie really just wanted his autograph! (Ok, that’s a positive story, but it speaks to the level these people are getting recognized.)
I enjoy the Up Series. I want nothing more than to start a campaign to help Jackie, and to send sweaters to all their grandbabies. I want to ride in Tony’s cab, and take a class from Nick. Their lives are captured forever in these little documentaries, these little nuggets of hyperreality. This is why we think the Up participants are our friends, and it’s the same reason we watch every 7 years.
I started watching the series because I was curious. I continued to watch the series because I was captivated. I am not oblivious to the political spin each installment is given. But what do we get from it?