Film Reviews

56 UP

By • Jan 19th, 2013 •

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Life on The UPside

Here, the past is prologue to a most unique viewing experience. Director Michael Apted is UP ‘n at ‘em again. For the 8th time in his ongoing remarkable and riveting award-winning documentary series —that began in 1964 with 7 UP! — he follows the lives of the same diverse group of Brits every seven years as they’ve grown from the innocence and naiveté of childhood to the 56-year-olds they now are.

No matter if you’ve missed any of the earlier episodes. (It doesn’t.)
In 56 UP as in all the previous ones, Apted aptly recaps their past, and with a
unique sense and sensibility, brings you 49 years along to their present stages in life.

The series is based on the Jesuit maxim: “Give me a child until he is seven
and I will give you the man.” And that’s exactly what he’s been able to accomplish for almost a half-century via these documentaries, which explore the breadth and depth of their hopes, dreams, satisfactions… and disappointments.
There are many of each.

The cast of 13 blokes: 9 lads, 4 lassies — range from posh upper crusts to lowly Eastenders. Cutting back and forth in time, how Apted shows them age within the framework of a single film is a wonder to behold. In fact, it’s awesome. (Though I abhor the current misuse of that word, it’s entirely appropriate here.)

Dorian Gray revisited? Not quite. In Oscar Wilde’s fictional tome, Gray stays the same, never aging…though his portrait does. What you get here is a unique reel opportunity to see real people as they grow older right before your eyes. And every 7 years, this motley crew is revisited, along with a birds-eye view of their wrinkles and waistlines, as the film shifts back and forth in flashbacks from their earlier days to the present.

The series also focuses on the English class system at work. There’s Oxford-bound preppies Andrew, Bruce and John, who, as expected, became barristers. Charles opted out of the series after 28 UP as did Peter, a musician, but who’s back 28 years later, chiefly to promote his band. Neil, a once-happy kid ended up homeless in his 20s, then managed to get his act—and life—together, eventually becoming a politico and church worker; farmer’s son Nick divorced, remarried (there’s a lot of that) and now teaches at a university in the U.S.; Paul, who grew up with Symon in an orphanage, later moved to Australia with his family; and Symon, father of 5 and the only non-white alum in the series divorced and now has a happy 2nd marriage where he and his wife are training to become foster parents.

Saving my pet participant for last, there’s Tony, as delightful in person as he is onscreen. Growing up in London’s East End, his childhood dream was to become a jockey. Though recurring scenes of him shown on horseback are quite impressive, it’s a shame it didn’t work out, so he followed through on his next choice: to become a cabbie—which is what he still does now. In his own way, he’s evolved into somewhat of a celebrity, and to this day is continually recognized by people who’ve watched him on the shows. One amusing story he recounts is when he had Buzz Aldrin as a fare and someone asked for an autograph. It turned out they wanted Tony’s—not the famed astronaut’s.

On the distaff side, there’s the 4 femmes: Jackie, Lynn, Sue and Suzy, each with their own slew of triumphs and travails. And like the guys, all have a backstory to keep you thoroughly absorbed. Here, more so than in any film series ever presented, it’s a case where the past is prologue. In all, it can be likened to a butterfly effect, where a small difference (ranking in the British class system) can make a significant difference to their status at a later time.

Past episodes, shown on the BBC TV every seven years, are available on DVD boxed sets, but this latest, 56 UP, at 144 minutes, is now being shown in US cinemas as a feature film.

Bottom Line: Class shows – in every sense of the word. Catch it if you can. It’s worth the watch.

A Visit with Two of the Crew

On meeting the director:

The day after the NYC press screening of 56 UP, I ambled into the studio’s office to finally meet Michael Apted, the person most responsible for the series’ longevity and brilliance. Though he narrates the films, you never see him in person, so I was slightly apprehensive, since I wasn’t sure what to expect— probably clad in a Savile Row suit with an accent fit for a king.

Only half right. (The accent.) Though he wore denims and a cardigan, he was still a class act, and introducing himself with “I’m Michael” immediately put me at ease. At 71 and 6’ 2”, this handsome, debonair director from the UK (now living in California), could well fit in with his dozen+ subjects.

Working for Granada a half-century back, he was listed on the first episode simply as “researcher.” (His job: to choose the kids.) But when the original director Paul Almond left for his home in Canada to get involved in other projects, Michael took over.

The original 7 UP (1964) was 39 minutes, but as each subsequent installment increased in running time, they were eventually shown on TV in installments. Why? Simply put: “You can never watch them in one sitting.”

Yet watching them is a life-long treat, not only emotionally but visually. With good reason he bragged that both his cameramen were Award winners: George Jesse Turner (BAFTA) and his Oscar-winning cameraman, David Samuelson, was the only man allowed to film the Queen’s 1953 coronation in Westminster Abbey.

On a personal level, though he’s invited the cast with their families to all of his premieres, he only sees a few of the originals apart from every 7 years (i.e. Bruce came to California w/his family & stayed for a couple of days). Some he talks to frequently; others not at all. “Like a regular family.” Ditto the cast. “One or two get together in between, but not many.”

As to his plans for the next one—63 UP due in 2019, he won’t start thinking about it for about 5 or 6 years. Then he’ll revisit the group individually a short while before filming to find out what’s been going on in their lives, with the most attention-grabbing ones getting the most time on camera. And after the extensive shoots, which normally fill up 130 50-minute DVD disks, he’ll spend about 5 months on the edit. Admittedly a “tremendous undertaking.”

One thing irking him in recent years was the participants’ last names were revealed (in the IMDB and elsewhere). To protect their privacy, he’d never given that info to the press; and shrugging his shoulders, said he felt that situation was “hopeless.”

Apart from this series, Michael has made his mark in some major feature and TV films – such as GORILLAS IN THE MIST – COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER – THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH – GORKY PARK – NELL – ENIGMA – AMAZING GRACE and most recently in 2010: THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER.

He’s also made his mark as a 3-term DGA President (2003-2009) and currently as their Secretary-Treasurer, and has received numerous kudos, including a Grammy, British Academy Award, and (to quote from his bio) “By the order of Queen Elizabeth II, Mr. Apted was made a Companion of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George for his work in the film and television industries.’

Those couldn’t have gone to a more worthy person.

P.S. On a personal aside, when asked what he’s looking forward to in his own life, said he just needs “health and happiness. Nothing else matters. My energies now are for my wife and grandchildren.”

On meeting Tony the Cabbie:

On a scale from 1 to 10, he’s a 9 ½. Upscale and to the manor born he’s not, but he could have given Eliza Doolittle a run for the money pre-Henry Higgins. You can take him anywhere. Anytime. And on this, his first visit to the Big Apple for the PR stint, Tony especially wanted to see the city.

How best to describe him other than to say he’s quite articulate, highly ingratiating. Mainly, he’s warm—indeed cuddly, and welcomed me first with a handshake…then with a kiss on each cheek. I was completely won over.

Admittedly, he loves the series, and has a very “trusting relationship” with Michael Apted. “We’re not actors; we’re real people.” To him, Michael, who calls the show a “lifelong passion” is “a film director first and a friend second.”

As to seeing any of the others, he and wife Debbie visited Paul and Sue for a week in Melbourne (“They looked after us impeccably”) and Paul’s daughter Katie stayed with them in Essex for two months. It’s a lifelong friendship.

Thinking over his years on the series, when asked if he’d do anything differently, said “Probably my only regret is I would have stayed longer and pursued my career as a jockey.” Other than that, he’s content with his work as a cabdriver in London, near his home in Essex with his wife and 3 children, and in their second home in Spain.

He’s also content with his five minutes of fame, and with a deserved semblance of pride, boasts about a few of his fares within the past year: Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, David Hasselhoff and George Hamilton, all of whom recognized him when he picked them up at the airport.

Think I’ll join that list, considering I plan to fly to Heathrow this spring. In fact, Tony gave me his e-mail address to contact him ahead. He’s one guy I’d love to see again, in person.

You will too…though on film. It’s a guaranteed UPbeat experience.

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