Monday, January 14, 2013

Reeling in the Years: The Up Series

Randall Stephens

It's been seven years. That means it's time for another installment of the perennial favorite UP Series, which has followed the lives of over a dozen English men and women since they were 7. (The latest is running on PBS this month.) Granada Television first aired the program in 1964.  Other updates came in 1970, 1977, 1984, 1991, 1998, 2005, 2012.  The brainchild of Michael Apted, the series has tracked the participants hopes, fears, interests, successes, failures, and more. It ranks as one of the best, most original documentaries of the 20th century.

Fifty years ago Apted hoped to shine light on the deep class divisions in England and to see how that would shape the lives of these individuals as the grew into adulthood.

Here's what Rebecca Mead writes about it at the New Yorker blog (January 9, 2013):

The series began with a political agenda. Taking the Jesuit maxim “Give me a boy until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” it suggested that the prospects of the participants were determined by the class into which they were born. To a certain extent, this turned out to be true, particularly for those participants belonging to the social and educational élite. John, the prep-school boy, became a barrister, while his classmate Andrew became a solicitor. . . Less predictable were the fates of the working-class and middle-class characters.

And Emma Brockes has this to say at the Guardian blog: 

What couldn't have been predicted was that a programme devised with the modest intention of giving viewers "a glimpse of England in the year 2000" would grow, over the years, into a candidate for the most affecting piece of television ever made. Births, deaths, marriages, divorces; mental illness; thwarted and realised ambitions; infidelity and its accommodation. That nothing extraordinary happened to the participants only made the series more profound, a dizzying and, at times, existentially terrifying examination of what it is to be alive, unfolding in a kind of emotional time-lapse photography.

A snapshot of 20th century social history.

If you haven't seen it, have a look at how it all started roughly half a century ago: 


hcr said...

I've been reading about this. It's an incredibly important resource, but it sort of creeps me out. I like to hear stories more than see them, I guess.

It's also interesting that many of the participants resent the intrusion of the project in their lives, but still participate. Don't quite know what to make of that.

Bland Whitley said...

I'm not sure "resource" is the right word here, unless I'm completely mistaking your meaning. As someone who's watched and gotten a lot out of the whole series, I wouldn't look at it as a classroom or research tool--it's just too personal for that. The Up series is really important, I think, but more as a mediated reflection on the life process, not in a purely documentary sense. Re: the participants, the series has gotten more interesting the more they have actively shaped how they want to be seen and how they've used the project.

hcr said...

Fair enough! I haven't seen it at all, Bland, so I'm sure I slighted it, although inadvertently. I was only thinking of it at the level of it being sort of a real-time diary of change over time. As I implied, I guess-- I meant to say it but I can see I didn't-- the personal side of it kind of creeps me out. Just the whole camera on real lives thing-- nothing specific to this series. There's something so personal about what we do as historians, already, I guess I don't really want to confront real, live, people who are both participating in and suffering through the construction of that history. Maybe I should get over it and actually see what I'm talking about, huh?!