Watching a documentary about the lives of people of no notable accomplishment could be as entertaining as watching winter grass grow. 35 Up has watched 14 people grow for 28 years, and it is fascinating.
In 1964, Great Britain's Granada television program, World in Action, interviewed a group of 7-year-old children for a feature titled 7-Up. Twenty-one years later, 28 Up was produced, and now comes 35 Up, a video release directed by Michael Apted, perhaps best known for fiction features, including Thunderheart, Gorky Park and Gorillas in the Mist.
If you stay tuned, you'll see the last of the series in the year 2000.
The 14 participants in the program were not chosen at random. They come from every layer of the complicated British class system: farmers, the working class, the middle class, the upper class. They are racially mixed, with both sexes represented.
We are not surprised to meet them at 35 the way they were at 7, because, from the start, the Up producers apparently intended to come back and haunt these people's lives every so often. Clearly, they wanted to prove a point: "Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man."
It seems likely that the right questions, together with clever editing, have helped in proving that point (even though the participants strongly denied there had been such manipulation in 1971, 1978 and 1985).
Even allowing for a little fudging, it is clear that the participants are, in many respects, mirror images of what they were at age 7, even if life has given them scars and wrinkles, and even if the light is not shining as brightly in their eyes.
The similarities between the child and the 30-something adult are both riveting and disturbing.
Take Paul, the first individual portrayed in the series. From a working-class background, he was shy and insecure but intelligent, living an introverted life in a children's home in London. When you meet him at 7, you see a puppet, moved by the invisible strings of the rules at his children's home.
Meet him at 35, and he is still a puppet, activated by the almost visible strings of Sue, his wife, who even does the talking for him. He is in Australia, he has a family, he is not obviously unhappy. He still has great potential, but now one wonders if it will ever bloom. As a child, Tony is a troublemaker: chin up, making faces, always in motion, all showoff and attitude, with a bit of rogue mixed in. He also comes from a working-class background, but he has a strong family and a big mouth. He wants to be a jockey, and wants to be the best at it. His ambitions at 35 are fulfilled.
Or are they?
He has ridden as a jockey only once, finishing last in the race. He has not raced since. He then wanted to open a pub, but had it for just eight months before it went bankrupt.
He now owns and drives a taxicab in London and plays as an extra in movie productions, because he has a dream of becoming a movie star.
"I don't want to change, because if I do, it will prove that I am all fake," says Tony, the man. Tony has not changed. He has found a way to fulfill his dreams of becoming a jockey, a proprietor and a movie star, even if he has essentially been a failure at all of those pursuits. And anybody who suggests his accomplishments are a sham might get the same punch in the nose Tony would have thrown at age 7.
Suzy was born upper-class and worry-free.
At 7, she is a girl with poise and manners, talking about the track she would follow, the track that would take her to chic private schools, to an earl to marry on her father's estate in Scotland, to nannies for the children.
None of that happened. She would probably erase the years between 14 and 28 from the film, if given the opportunity; she appears lost, disturbed, depressed, so obviously unhappy that it is painful to watch.
But at 35, she is well-married, back to traditional values and raising three children. When asked what happened to the chain-smoking lost soul she once was, she answers frankly, "I suppose Rupert." And her stylish, uptight husband is, indeed, a very well-bred little lad. Bruce declares at 7 that he wants to go to Africa to "try to teach people who are not civilized to be more or less good." Somehow, we suspect he is not actually going to pursue that vocation. But after studying math at Oxford, he chooses to teach immigrants in London's poor east side, while living in a meager flat.
And at 35, we see him as a loner, teaching math in a remote town near Bangladesh.
Jackie, Lynn and Sue were lively working-class girls full of dreams at age 7. At 35, it seems that they are too busy making a living to reflect on anything regarding the past. When asked if money is a problem, they almost make an interviewer ashamed of himself.
Why in the world is he always throwing money and class in their faces? It seems to be his problem more than theirs. After all, they are probably the happiest of the 7-Up bunch.
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Just as they were at age 7.
Two participants have withdrawn from the Up program, but all of those who remain must at times regret the day they accepted a role in this somewhat wicked, long-term play. A series in constant progress, these programs have not just chronicled, but also influenced, the participants' lives. And that influence has not always been for the best. After all, knowing that who you were at age 7 probably determined who you are in adult life is like receiving a life sentence without parole.
In the end, 35 Up answers more questions than it raises. It allows you to watch people in progress, living their lives in fast motion. And even if some of the answers to life's developmental questions seem a little pat, very few films--fiction or documentary--celebrate life as well, or as chillingly, as this one does.
35 Up: Directed by Michael Apted. Academy Elite, 1991. 123 minutes.