DVD Review of 49
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/31/06
Yes, he did it again! One of the great filmic projects of the 20th Century, Michael Apted’s The Up Series, makes its entrée into the new millennium with the seventh bravura installment of its documentary format. Although shown on British television over the last four decades, viewers in other parts of the world have usually had to see it on the big screen, in local arts and independent theaters. Late this year, the DVD of the 49 Up was released in America, just a few weeks after its theatrical release, and it’s a worthwhile successor to earlier films. While the series’ participants wax bitterly, on occasions, many wax philosophically, displaying one of the series’ greatest virtues- showing that the average person is not necessarily as doltish as modern reality television would lead you to believe. Given an opportunity to reflect, average folks can stumble upon real wisdom, rather than the Lowest Common Denominator stupidity that American ‘reality’ shows like Survivor or Fear Factor highlight. Of course, neither of those shows is reality- they are merely staged gimmick shows. The Up Series is ‘real reality,’ and no, there won’t be a new episode in a week’s time to appease the speed addicted MTV mindset. It’ll take seven long years before the next entry pulls into port.
The series began as the brainchild of the Left Wing ITV television show World In Action, made by Granada Television, which in 1964 sought out typical school children from the lower and upper classes of English life. Back then, the class system in Merry Olde England was noteworthy, as the voiceover intoned, ‘The executive and the shop steward of the year 2000 are seven years old,’ but by the third installment, 21 Up- in 1978, the lives of these ordinary people took precedence over political posturing, and the series was firmly in control of co-producer Apted- director of The World Is Not Enough, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Gorillas In The Mist, who was merely an assistant on the original Seven Up. The motto of the series has always been the notion espoused by a Jesuit proverb: ‘Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.’ That seems to have proven a durable- if not infallible, wisdom. Over the years and programs, two of the original fourteen children have seemingly permanently dropped out of the project. The first to bail out was one of the trio of ‘rich boys- Charles Furneaux, who later became a documentarian himself. His last appearance was in 21 Up, and the reasons for his decision have never been clear. The second permanent defector was Peter Davies, a middle class boy who became a teacher, then dropped out after 28 Up- due to flak he received for some political comments he made against the Thatcher government of the 1980s. He has gone on to become a musician, but is not even mentioned nor seen in the series, unlike Furneaux, whose presence is at least mentioned.
Two other participants, John Brisby and Simon Basterfield, have also missed episodes. John- the second of the three rich boys, opted out of 28 Up and 42 Up, but has appeared in 35 Up and 49 Up to help promote his charities for Bulgaria- his clan’s native land. Simon- the only black participant in the program, missed 35 Up, due to the death of his mother and the breakup of his first marriage. In this episode, another participant, the rich girl- Suzanne Dewey, complains that the series is an intrusion into her life, and seems to suggest she won’t appear in any more films. She’s not the only one who complains, but it’s always struck me as an indication of the immense selfishness and density of some of the participants to say things like that. No, they had no choice but to appear in the first film, but they also have an opportunity that few people have in life- a slice of immortality. In several centuries, all but a dozen or so of the biggest name film stars of the past century will be known to people then. But, these films will stand in paramount importance in truly understanding what life was like in Western civilization at the turn of the millennium. The names of all these participants will be far more well known to the intelligentsia than the hot one minute, cold the next movie star of the moment. And the only thing they have to endure are a few questions about their lives and opinions? How many of us would jump at such a golden opportunity? Plus, they all get paid for their appearances by Apted, out of his own fees for making the films, and whatever cash awards he wins along the way.
Some of the participants do embrace the opportunities the series has afforded them. One of them is the first seen in this edition- Tony Walker- the scrappy blue collar kid from London’s East End. He seemed headed for a life of crime, according to Apted’s view in 21 Up, but turned his life around, and he and his wife became cabbies, successful enough to buy a second home in the south of Spain, where he hopes to open up a British pub. He’s a grandfather now, and rails against Tony Blair’s government, and the high taxes he pays. That he rails against the very system that allowed him to ‘make it,’ shows how far Britain has come vis-à-vis the class issue. The palpable pride Tony has in showing off his two homes says it all, especially compared to the fact that a cabdriver in America would never be able to live so well off. Yet, he shows a thin vein of intolerance, bordering on racism, that is sure to stick in the minds of many social engineers, when he speaks about the loss of the East End to foreigners. Yet, he also shows some class- ruing not only the infidelities he mentioned in 42 Up, but the pain that very mention caused his children.
The next up on the show is one of the three working class gals from the East End, Jackie Bassett. She too spends much of her few minutes of current footage bitching- but about Apted’s cutting of prior films, claiming he’s underestimated her when, if anything, he seems to have gone out of the way not to depict her manifest failures. Yet, what she fails to realize, and so do most critics, is that this series is not just a chronicle of the fourteen original children, but the ever unseen fourteenth life- that of Apted, whose very editorial decisions are as important, sociologically, as anything that occurs in his subject’s lives, for they reflect the import of events to a chronicler of the age. Doubtless, Apted will be skewered and lauded by future historians with political axes to grind far greater than Jackie’s shallow and self-serving one. It’s simply a silly claim she makes, but she also tends to fit into preconceptions about class- she’s been living on the dole for many years, and has had failed marriages and three boys out of wedlock. Her schoolmate, Sue Sullivan- the prettiest of the three East End girls, has fared better. Also divorced, with kids, and living with a guy she’s not married to, she has- at least, gotten a good job and, like Tony, proudly shows off her home, and her tv watching pooch. Of the first three participants, she seems to be the only one who has totally gone against the perception that class is destiny.
Then there is Bruce Balden- the conscience of the show, whose hairstyle curiously seems to never have changed over the years, despite thinning and graying. He was rich, sent to boarding school, but spent the bulk of his life teaching poor children in London, as well as around the world. Yet, at 49 he seems to have ‘sold out.’ This is what other critics have labeled his choice of working at an exclusive Boy’s Academy is. Yet, is not the man entitled to, after decades of drudge work in service to his society, a better life for himself and his family? I say yes. The critics who needle him are merely as biased against him as they are against the East Enders. They do not call Tony a sellout for leaving the country. Bigotry can cut in more than one direction. Besides, Bruce’s reason for quitting his other job is sound- he just got burned out, and was unappreciated. It echoes the sentiments that forced Peter Davies out of the series two decades earlier, as well as too many viewers, such as myself.
Next up is Paul Kligerman, who, unlike Bruce, has steadily lost hair with each film, and has always been one of the most likable participants. He and his wife have been mainstays of the series since 21 Up. Paul was, along with Simon, one of the two boys in a boys’ home, in Seven Up. By 14, he had emigrated to Australia. He admits he’s a man of no ambition, and has worked as a laborer most of his life, and raised a family- his daughter being the first in his clan to go to college. He claims there is nothing more important in his life than his family. Yet, here he also admits to a deep depression that threatened his sanity. It started with a bad job and almost ruined his marriage. It is reminiscent of another participant’s earlier psychological woes- Neil Hughes. It is also the sort of ‘real’ moment that defines this series’ most valuable contributions to not only film, but science. One day, in fifty or so years, someone will have to edit a superfilm that incorporates much of the excised material, so that anthropologists will have greater understanding of why men like Neil and Paul almost cracked under day to day pressures of life, for I’m sure there were many things said that never made the final cuts of these films, but which hold answers to be plumbed after their deaths. Yet, he has recovered, and now runs marathons.
The shortest updated segment belongs to Suzy Dewey, whose life seems idyllic, yet complains of ‘pain’ caused by the film, and also hints at possible depression. The participant who seems to understand the film’s import most is probably its smartest member- Nick Hitchon, the physicist and professor who emigrated to America. Since the last episode, his first marriage to shrewish Jackie fell apart- as predicted by Apted in an earlier film, but he’s remarried to an attractive blond woman named Christine. He’s still a professor at the University of Madison- Wisconsin, but she teaches at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, so they switch weekend starveling to see each other in their commuter marriage.
Lynn Johnson is the third of the East End girls, and her life’s work- as a librarian for underprivileged kids, is in jeopardy, due to budget cuts. Like Tony Walker, she is an outspoken critic of the Tony Blair years and priorities, and still suffers from medical problems in her brain. Simon Basterfield’s second marriage is going well, but he laments the fact that two of his children from his first marriage refuse to see him. He also is a grandfather, and in his segment he is reunited with Paul, who is flown in from Australia by Apted. The two were previously reunited in 21 Up, and their connections and similarities are striking- proving that economics is more vital than race. Both men are blue collar workers who lament not doing more in life. But Simon muses that one should not live to work, but work to live.
The three rich boys are up next. Andrew Brackfield changed careers from being a lawyer to working for a petrochemical corporation. Yet, he still is successful, and life has gone well- reflecting perfectly his privileged upbringing, although he shares a small paranoia about these films claiming he’s become more guarded, even about being guarded. There is a brief mention of Charles Furneaux, and then John Brisby has a brief segment where more of his charitable work for Bulgaria is highlighted. Although an early and outspoken critic of the series- utterly missing its point, and becoming- for some critics, the show’s Darth Vader, he has grown quite likable in his old age, as well as admirable. To hear that his political opinions mirror many of those uttered by East Enders Tony and Lynn says much about how England has changed.
The final participant, and in the last few films his segment always seems to come last, is perhaps the most popular participant. He is Neil Hughes- whose mental problems and homelessness oddly endeared him to viewers in the 1980s. In the last two episodes, however, he has straightened his life out. In 42 Up he was befriended by Bruce Balden, and invited to his wedding, but now the two men have gone their separate ways. Neil is now a local politician who, like Jackie, lives on the dole. Yet, unlike her, he is more productive, and seems to have found a renewed purpose in life- through his religion and public service. He also ends the episode with one of those great moments of offhand poesy that no fictive film can rival. After ruing his failures, especially in love, he tells an anecdote about simply watching a butterfly that perched near him and flapped its wings, almost as if wanting to just be seen as beautiful. He relates this to his philosophy of life, that all one can do is exist and enjoy oneself. Of course, he also gets off the best political comment of the film, stating that, ‘It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.’
Yet, if all this film was was a bunch of middle-aged people pontificating, it would not be nearly as cogent nor powerful. It is only through the time lapsed juxtapositions of the children with the adults, and parallaxing what has remained and what has grown, that the full ineffable power of their plights and the film is manifested. Yes, some participants- John and Lynn, are manifestly appearing only to further their own pet political causes, but so what? That two people from such different backgrounds have learnt the same lessons is itself another indicator of this series’ value. Tony Walker has done each a step better- he’s used the series to further his own enrichment, as he apparently has a stage play in production about his life story, based on his appearances in the films.
The film runs 135 minutes, tying it with 28 Up as the longest in the series, and is shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The DVD is from First Run Features, and has only one bonus- a half hour interview of Apted by film critic Roger Ebert on the set of his television show Ebert & Roeper, in June of 2006. Ebert’s comments and queries are rather perfunctory, but Apted answers them and goes beyond them in response. There is one problem, and that is that the sound of the interview is horrible. It’s as if someone were running a machine in the background. One wonders if the interview was filmed by Ebert’s or Apted’s crew?
Some viewers and critics feel that this should be the last episode. I disagree, for people like that are injecting a ‘purpose’ into the films, rather than extracting one out of them. This is often a problem with news coverage in any field. Centuries and eons from now, this series will be a Rosetta Stone- despite the immense tracking of our culture via printed media, films, radio, television, and the Internet, for it was the first one to focus on average people, whatever their backgrounds. These participants will become icons who are studied and debated long after most of their peers are dust; a fact which may explain their reluctance to appear in it, but not excuse it, for the nobler option is almost always to serve the betterment of all. Is a few minutes onscreen glimpse into real reality that much of a loathsome burden?
By 56 Up, it would not shock me if the first death occurs within the fourteen- I just get a sense of it- perhaps Lynn or Jackie, or perhaps some tragedy, so that sense makes each episode with all of them all the more meaningful. The series, as a whole, and this installment, shows that there is a great nobility in utility, which is best summed up by wisdom that Bruce imparts: ‘When dreams go and the day to day living of ordinary life and family life takes over, I think we just sort of live without our dreams.’ In what other medium does the offhanded poesy that too much fictive art misses come so vividly to life? Where else do people show off the best in themselves- an ability to cogitate, reason, empathize, and reflect, rather than the worst- their own petty envies and lusts?
Just in watching this film I was hurled back a year, to when I watched and reviewed the DVD boxed set of the first six films in the series, and that minor fillip was enough to enliven a humdrum day, as I struggle with the very things these people do, in my dreary life as a person. At least I have my art to fall back on, and these people have this record of their humanity. The reason why the series touches so many others is precisely because they lack such things as artistic talent or a platform to be seen. If I can be so moved, merely by the memory of watching the earlier installments of this film, I have to believe that most of the participants- whom we all know and refer to by their first names, as they age and wise up a bit more, will see that they, too, have been touched by something greater than anything their lives, alone can signify. And the fact that their touching will last long beyond flesh on flesh is something anyone reading this review, now or in the far future, can be thankful for.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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