It is, perhaps, the ultimate reality show, though the performers aren’t celebrities and don’t particularly seem to welcome the attention. “56 Up” is the latest installment in Michael Apted’s remarkable documentary series, which began when its 14 participants, an unruly gaggle of 7-year-olds, were asked about their lives and their dreams for a British TV documentary called “Seven Up.” Apted (a young researcher on the original film) has revisited them for a new documentary every seven years, letting us follow their lives along with him. His format has long been set: about 10 minutes per person, with each segment mingling vintage footage with present-day interviews, giving us the uncanny experience of watching a person age before our eyes.
Now the gang — 13 of the original 14 are here (one declined to participate) — is well settled in middle age; most are married, many for the second time; most have children, many have grandchildren; most careers and life paths are long set. A number of them express dissatisfaction with the series, with the way it reduces years of their lives to a few minutes through selective editing. (“That’s all there is to you — this tiny snippet of your life?” asks Nick, rhetorically.) But they return, with more or less good humor — for its subjects, says Suzy, the project is “like a bad book” that you nonetheless feel obligated to finish.
Would that all books could be as compelling as this series, which finds something deeply moving in the stories of ordinary lives. Like all of the “Up” films, it’s most haunting to compare the new footage with the long-ago 7-year-olds: Neil, who sparkled as a child, now seems to carry the world’s weight on his face; Bruce, a sad-eyed boy who missed his daddy, now finds joy in late-life fatherhood of two young sons. Symon, who grew up in a children’s home, now opens his own home to foster children, several of whom tell Apted’s camera what Symon and his wife have meant to them.
There are few dramatic revelations in “56 Up”: Troubled Neil, still a small-town politician, is now a lay minister in his local church; Tony and his wife, Debbie, are raising one of their granddaughters; Peter, absent from the series for decades, returns to promote his folk-music group. Hard times haven’t left this group untouched: Lynn has lost her beloved job as a children’s librarian; Jackie struggles with crippling arthritis. But what’s most striking about this installment is an overall sense of serenity and optimism — an idea of life as a journey enhanced by a positive attitude, with simple pleasures to be had in the laughter of grandchildren and the satisfaction of work well done. We see Sue, who’s joined a local theater troupe, crooning the song lyric “Smile, though your heart is breaking”; it’s a motto that seems to suit most of this resilient crew, who bare their lives to us with courage and grace.
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Apted, himself now in his early 70s, says he hopes to continue the series further. Long may it live.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org