As soon as Tony starts talking, I am hooked. I want to hear every detail about his life and relationship with his wife and family, how they’ve balanced their hard work and marriage. I am impressed with what they’ve built for themselves, a comfortable spot in the city and a retirement house in Spain where they were shown frolicking with their kids and grandkids. When Tony says, “Being married isn’t easy,” it’s like listening to a friend over dinner.
I don’t know Tony personally, yet through director Michael Apted’s film 49 Up (and the seven preceding films), he’s given us the gift of making me feel that I do. For Tony has appeared to update me and the rest of the audience for this fascinating series on his hopes and dreams in a new documentary every seven years since appearing in Seven Up!, commissioned for British television when he and the other youngsters were seven years of age. I’ve been watching him mature and evolve into the man he is today since I first saw 28 Up.
In the Public Eye
For Seven Up!, filmed in 1964, the filmmakers interviewed 14 children of assorted economic backgrounds and from a variety of neighborhoods. By this latest installment, 12 of the participants have allowed the intrusion into their lives. Some have chosen to bow out of earlier episodes and have returned. Others have refused to participate ever again.
In 49 Up, we see how these people have evolved since the last installment; clips from the earlier documentaries remind us of exactly how they have changed. We also see what it means to live with the expectation of appearing in the series every seven years. This has profoundly influenced these people’s lives and not always for the better, even though to my eye the participants appear to have been respectfully and compassionately treated by the director.
Tony is among those who have made the best of their inadvertent fame. In this film he reports that someone inspired by the Up series of films contacted him about doing a play reading featuring excerpts of his life story. Tony performed as himself and he said the response was so positive that they are looking for a producer who can stage it in a theater. Like some of the other participants, he has found ways to leverage his fame to get where he wants to go. (I find it fascinating that it’s to a condo development in Spain filled with like-minded expats who are recreating a little British neighborhood in their new home.)
On the other end of the spectrum, Jackie tells off Apted, revealing a fairly large chip on her shoulder about his expectations of her that he had expressed earlier in the series. Taking him to task for underestimating her in his earlier interviews, she castigates Apted for asking personal questions and tailoring them to fit his stereotypes about people of her class or background. “I hate it,” sighs Suzanne (“Suzy”) of the documentary process.
“Every seven years, it’s like a little pill of poison that is injected into my life,” agrees another participant, Charles, even if the fame from the series has allowed him to raise a great deal of money for his ancestors’ village in Bulgaria.
The class differences loom large between the children, close somewhat as adults, but remain pronounced for some. The people who started out in the upper classes tended to remain there, for the most part (those little upper-class boys predicted quite accurately what colleges they were going to). But the people who started out in lower classes often seem to have held their own, or like scrappy East-Ender Tony, they’ve improved their stations. Even Neil, who at 28 was homeless and fragile, is now an involved and engaged citizen in his community (although he’ll never be rich). But it’s the people — the divorces, kids, even grandkids, who surface — who are most important as the films come out. And the happiest of these people seem to be the ones who have either made some peace with their involvement in the series or have learned to set firm boundaries around their lives with the filmmakers.
49 Up not only provides a rich social and class history but also touches on the ethics and effects of asking people to display their private lives for the edification of others. The result is an emotional two hours with a group of people who actually divulge a lot about who they are, despite their frequent reluctance to do so.
Whether you are a filmmaker, journalist, or student of human nature, I’m certain you won’t be able to look away, either.