What’s up in Britain? Up‘s up, that’s what
You turn on the news over here, and these days it is less a series of reports of happenings than announcements of events, attendance at which is semi-compulsory. The Diamond Jubilee, centred on the unashamed bribe of a four-day long weekend, seems to pop up here and there with the Queen and Phil opening art exhibitions, reviewing horse guards, etc. This combines with regular announcements from the Olympics about which essential urban functions are soon to be curtailed (“general anaesthetic will not be available to non-ticketed citizens in June”), all of which we are supposed to celebrate as part of the collective spirit of hosting the Games.
Yet the real event of the late spring is that rarest of things: a televisual broadcast event, in an era of downloads and iPlayers. Who knows, it may be the last broadcast event of all time — for ITV is showing 56 Up, the latest in the series of film documentaries (three parts in this case) documenting the lives of 14-or-so kids born in the mid-’50s, initially captured in a Granada doco musing on whether children’s lives are determined by their class status, and subsequently blossoming into a half-century record of their lives. For decades, the Up series has come and gone — it’s there, you forget about it, it comes around slightly quicker each time.
Some people find the series variable or even dull. By contrast, my approach to watching the 90-minute episodes of the Up series is roughly: 1) switch on TV; 2) weep for 90 minutes; 3) switch off TV. As the Up series has gathered and grown, its power and portentousness has become almost unbearable, terrifying. The early episodes — up to say 28 Up — were wildly open, stories of people becoming, spontaneous at seven, guarded, spiky and resentful at 14 and 21, and then, by the time 28 Up came around, having settled into a groove.
Often as not, the balance was tipped by the camera work — Suzy the deb, chain smoking her way through 21 Up, painfully anxious. Then at 28, happy, glowing and flowing. “what do you think has made the change?” the disembodied voice asks as the frame widens to show a grinning toothy, home counties solicitor in a pinstripe suit. “Well,” she said “I suppose there’s Rupert.”
In 28 Up, it started to become clear that the original interest of the filmmakers — class and education and its shaping of life — was coming to be the least interesting part of it all. As the great class battles of the 20th century faded into the post-’70s triumph of a one-dimensional capitalism, the most privileged participants became the least interesting, and the lives of the working-class characters became more interesting on account of other factors, like their race — mixed-race foster child Symon ended up as a freight handler in Heathrow, in a knitted rasta cap, and Richard Pryor tache, where it looked like he would stay. Until in 56 Up we see him coiffured in pinstripes, at the wedding of a son who’s acquired an executive job.
The three working-class girls — initially interviewed as a unit, because it was assumed they would become wives and mothers — were first angry (in 28 Up and 35 Up) at any question that they had missed out on anything. But by 42 Up and 49 Up, they were cool and reflective about what they had got and not. Their jobs were semi-mundane — institutional admin mostly — but by 56 Up one was head of a department. In terms of the life laid out for her, she had come further than anyone.
Curiously, or not at all, the middle films — 35 Up/49 Up — are a little dull, as far as the “happier” participants are concerned. They are raising children, settling down, ceasing to become and starting to be. But it is in these films that those participants yet to find their way become most interesting — Paul, a foster kid who moves to Australia and becomes a brickie, apparently happy in a sunlit idyll, only for a deeper melancholia to emerge; Bruce, a Pooteresque teacher who slopes through six episodes wearing his unhappiness like a wet woolen coat, looking for meaning in Third World charity, only to find it in love and a private school in the home counties.
And then there was Neil. When I first saw 28 Up at the age of 18 in 1986, at the State Cinema in Treasury Place — and that itself seems like a memory from a vanished era — Neil was the one who made you sit and take notice, terrified. Winsome and puckish at seven and 14, by 21 he was a uni drop-out and squatter, in that quintessentially miserabilist British way, making tea on an open fire in a deserted terrace house. Something was going wrong, and then it went wronger — at 28, he was roaming Scotland, living in barns and caravans, on the run from nameless, and numberless, fears.
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Categories: Film & TV