Have you heard of the “Up” documentaries? I had not but came across it on Netflix and then spent the next two days learning way too much about 14 random English people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds!
The “Up” Series is a bunch of documentaries directed by Michael Apted that follows the same group of ordinary English schoolchildren, checking in with them every seven years (at age 7, 14, 21, 28, and so on) to interview them about their hopes, dreams, regrets, feelings about their current life, and so on. The latest, 56 Up, came out last year, but we first meet the group in 1964, when they are seven years old and, as later episodes confirm, at peak candor and charm.
The initial intention of the series was to document the future of England — “the shop steward and the executive of the year 2000″ — and to explore whether social class is really destiny, repeatedly quoting the Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”
They interview kids in prestigious boarding schools wearing little knee socks and neckties, and then kids who live in ‘slums’ and ‘children’s homes’ (orphanages) getting into scraps on the playground in their hand-me-down sweaters, and then bring them all together to see how they interact and what they think of each other. The films get a little more existential and broad in focus in later episodes, but the initial doc is total class warfare, cutting from an annoying trio of boys saying they read the Financial Times because they have shares in it (lol, ok) to a big-eyed kid living in a charity home saying that rich people think they can do anything because they have money, but it’s the poor people who do all the work for them (Symon!). It’s hilarious and amazing and insane all at once. WATCH IT.
The problem with watching all of these in a row though, I should warn you, is that they constantly recap all the previous documentaries in a way that was not made for binge-watching and becomes tedious fast. Still, watching all of them at once makes you feel like an all-powerful time traveler and is somehow the most satisfying thing in the world, even though the participants are for the most part completely boring and random people with regular old jobs and families. Somehow, the endless recapping starts to feel like penance, as if I’m somehow actively earning the right to see time pass so quickly, to watch a 28-year-old become a 35-year-old with the click of the next button.
So far the main takeaway for me is that let’s all never be 21 years old again. Every participant was so wonderfully and predictably angsty and intense, shyly articulating fresh realizations about the smallness of their own lives. Also the 14-year-olds were also across the board awkward and insecure—it was like everyone instantly became 100% less attractive, which is both sad and reassuring. The universality of it!
Anyway I still have 35, 42, 49, and 56-Up to watch, and then I’m going to have to wait six more years for 63-Up, which is going to be a real bummer of a wait. Soon some of them will start dying (no one has yet!), and then I’m going to start dying, and we’re all going to die, without even having been the subject of a longitudinal documentary series.
P.S. TEAM BRUCE.