'56 Up' may be the best film in best documentary series ever

Published: Wednesday, March 13 2013 3:05 p.m. MDT

Peter at age 56 in Peter at age 56 in "56 Up", the eighth installment of the documentary that keeps tabs on 14 children representing a broad sample of British society. (First Run Features)

"56 UP" — ★★★★ — Lynn Johnson, Susan Sullivan, Bruce Balden, Neil Hughes, Tony Walker; unrated but probable PG-13 (profanity); Broadway

Like an old friend whose mere memory brings tears, the greatest cinematic experiment in sociology and psychology ever attempted returns to theaters with "56 Up." Every seven years, a new installment of the "Up" series reminds us of our mortality even as we see the years pass for the British subjects of these films.

The world met them in "Seven Up!", 14 children representing what was then a pretty broad sample of British society — poor East End tykes, orphans, a child of mixed race, a country boy and the posh-accented scion of landed gentry and the professional classes.

Every seven years we see how Jackie and Lynn, Tony, Suzy, Symon, Neil and the others have changed — how the attitudes and personalities they expressed as talkative 7-year-olds have manifested themselves in adult life.

We see working-class Sue as a teen, declaring that she'd "like to have a full life" before getting married. But she married at 24 and was divorced by the time "35 Up" appeared.

Paul, bullied as a child, moved to Australia, married, raised a family, and lifelong lack of self-confidence aside, displays that British pluck — "People tend to get on with their lives, no matter what."

Some cope with illness and loss. The famously lost Neil, homeless during some stretches of the series, is reminded that he dropped out of college, never married, but found purpose as a small-town lay minister and elected official. "No formal education can prepare you for life," he insists, adding that he's not interested in living a long life — "70 or so, and that'll be enough."

Andrew at age 49, as seen in Andrew at age 49, as seen in "56 Up." From ITV Studios 56UP Monday May 14th on ITV 1 Archive Picture Shows: 49 Up, 2006 Andrew at 49 yrs The latest instalment of ITV?s landmark documentary series returns to the channel this year to visit the group of people whose lives have been documented since they were seven, to see where they are now, in 56 Up. The original 7 Up was broadcast in 1964 as a one-off World in Action Special featuring children who were selected from different backgrounds and social spheres to talk about their hopes and dreams for the future. As members of the generation who would be running the country by the year 2000, what did they think they would become? Inspired by then World in Action editor Tim Hewat?s passionate interest in both the Jesuit saying: ?Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man,? and the rigid class system of 1960s Britain, 7 Up set out to discover whether or not the children?s lives were pre-determined by their background. The result was ground-breaking television - the very first example of a programme recording real people living real lives ? and the follow-up films have won an array of awards. Director Michael Apted, has returned every seven years to chart the children?s progress through life. Over the past five decades, the series has documented the group as they have become adults and entered middle-age, dealing with everything life has thrown at them in between. ? ITV For further information please contact Peter Gray 0207 157 3046 peter.gray@itv.com This photograph is (C) ITV Plc and can only be reproduced for editorial purposes directly in connection with the programme or event mentioned above, or ITV. Once made available by ITV Plc Picture Desk, this photograph can be reproduced once only up until the TX date and no reproduction fee will be charged. Any subsequent usage may incur a fee. This photograph must not be syndicated to any other pub (First Run Features)

But almost to a one, the others interviewed speak of an education being "the most important thing" you can leave your kids. It levels the British playing field, lessens the impact of class. Some dropped out of appearing in the series, thanks to the notoriety, the raw exposure — the edited version — of their lives.

The psychology of the piece comes from the candid nature of the questions, then and now. Kids, then adults, talk about their concept of love, happiness, success, their worries, fears and hopes. The sociology comes from the way Britain has changed over their lives.

Interviewer-director Michael Apted, involved with the series from the start, went on to make "Coal Miner's Daughter," a Bond film, action pictures, a pretty solid career in the movies. But this is what he will be remembered for, prying, interrogating and charming these kids-turned-adults every seven years, patiently pulling together confessional interviews that paint wonderful portraits of people through the long course of their lives. He forces them, and us, to take stock every seven years. Not a bad idea for anybody.

Despite fears for the British version of what we like to call "The American Dream" — home ownership, financial security, a healthy, long life — "56 Up" feels like the most hopeful film of them all. Some are still enduring trials.

But many have found their place, a contentment that feels so very British. They've kept calm. They've carried on.

"56 Up" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for profanity; running time: 143 minutes.

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