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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18 Responses

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  1. Hmmm, a baby boomer’s Carry On Up the … series.

    by Meski on May 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm

  2. Note to Ed: Rundle’s gone off the reservation again.
    Double his pay and include a case of fine wine as thanks!

    by paddy on May 22, 2012 at 2:06 pm

  3. Glory, I was just thinking about this series. Every six years or so I get that feeling it’s time to hear from the Up lot, and so it is 56 Up.

    Guy, I think I was in that State Theatre somewhere too, gripped by this amazing window into others’ lives. What a hard-hearted bastard you’d have to be not to be touched by Neil… there was a fragility about him at age 7 - those comments about not wanting children, wanting to be a bus driver. By age 14, it had already set in, whatever “it” was or is.

    I read your piece today, part holding my breath, feeling tears just about to come… I’m British, born as the 70s began, and I identify so much with this series.

    Thanks for filling us in on the latest instalment.


    by puddleduck on May 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm

  4. I first got this series out from the video shop in about 1998 - they had all of them up to then. I cried and was hooked. I worried about Neil and waited for the next series. It is very hard to tell a story about real human lives - often boring, loving, awkward humanity but this almost does it.

    by LJG………….. on May 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm

  5. Great perspective.
    I believe someone smart talked about ‘the unexamined life’.

    by ernmalleyscat on May 22, 2012 at 3:18 pm

  6. In this context, equally moving and valuable is Gillian Armstrong’s local series (Smokes and Lollies; Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better; Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces; Not Fourteen Again and Love, Lust and Lies) following three women from Adelaide. See review by Mel Campbell of the series at

    by Fleur on May 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm

  7. Yeah, you kind of just feel existentially exhausted each time this thing comes around. One thing about the mass media revolution - a blink, there are still heaps of people alive who remember what the world was like without any television at all - has been its pure epistemological violence: so obliterating of so much. You can’t hear the opening music to this terrifying monster of a thing and not want to shout: DON’T. STOP. Don’t…stop…

    That coy BBC producer knows what’s what (as of course he would): the camera does take away your soul after all.

    by Jack Robertson on May 22, 2012 at 3:35 pm

  8. It’s always a joy to read your writing, GR. Thanks.

    by Jack Robertson on May 22, 2012 at 3:36 pm

  9. Perhaps he’s a subscriber to the old line about a documentary being something the upper class do to the working class. Clearly, he knows which end of the camera is the business end.

    by archibald on May 22, 2012 at 3:48 pm

  10. Gah… fusion. In the late 70s and early 80s, Uni physics researchers were “this close” to getting fusion right. Maybe nobody was filming it. It’s still hugely worth the effort, though: a longer journey, but more to learn on the way.

    As always, thanks to Guy for the insight and breathless linguistic indulgence.

    by Clytie on May 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm

  11. Always enjoyed the series, and as I am of an age with the participants I always feels like I’m catching up with - if not old friends - then at least long-time acquaintances. The producers really don’t get reality TV though do they? I’ve been waiting 40-odd years for someone to get voted off, darn it.

    by Stevo the Working Twistie on May 22, 2012 at 6:23 pm

  12. sorry last para should read ‘….ITV, the equivalent of channel nine’

    by Guy Rundle on May 22, 2012 at 7:27 pm

  13. What a fantastic article Mr Rundle, I could not agree more about Neil.

    All through the series I have spent the most time contemplating Neil.

    Just that image of him in a miserable tiny Scottish town which was pelting down with rain, alone
    miserable but somehow independent, different.

    Its a hard image to get out of your head, and the up series was there to catch his personal drama like no other reality show could ever do.

    by Tim nash on May 22, 2012 at 8:33 pm

  14. I did wonder when UK digiTV spawned a Nine but, thanks for the erratum above, though I’d say ITV was more 7 than 9.
    When last I visited it was like a low budget (sic!) 10.

    by AR on May 22, 2012 at 9:37 pm

  15. Wonderful article, Guy, can’t wait for the new film/episodes. I too wait for the seven year itch, grateful to each of the people who allowed us to follow their life-paths, however superficial or deep, painful or full of joy. Neil was the one I worried about from age seven - so open, so vulnerable - what relief when he got out of the caravan,though it might have been a haven for him,!
    The most beautiful statement came from Bruce aged seven, when he was in a boarding school while his family (or just his father?) was in Africa - “My heart’s desire is to see my father who is in Kenya”.
    What I missed was much idea about the parents and parenting. I understand why - invading families is a bridge too far - but it is not just social conditions which maketh the man; it’s also family in all its varieties.
    Michael Apted has produced a monumental work of art. Bless him. And the children

    by achimova1 on May 23, 2012 at 1:27 am

  16. Perhaps we all wish (well some of you would be ambivalent), that our lives had been recorded in thus fashion……………to meet our former selves, compare and pass judgement as though it wasn’t really us. You don’t have to like the series but by crikey, what an opportunity to have had.

    by Alfonse on May 23, 2012 at 6:57 pm

  17. Thank you for this piece. An English friend put me onto the ‘Up’ series some time in the 80s. How could one not be compelled by the fortunes of Neil. As a child he seemed one of those beautiful souls. The world can be hard for such people, but somehow he has emerged from those lost years, and found he has much to give this world…and I am thankful. Perhaps this program should be mandatory viewing for bureaucrats, educators and others with power over others’ lives.

    by Elbow Patches on May 24, 2012 at 5:39 pm

  18. A terrific piece, Mr Rundle, on a favourite series.

    I still beam when Neil, as a chirpy 7 yr-old in school uniform, skips along the street…and despair at him, decades later, huddled in a caravan on the misty moor. I laugh aloud when 7 yr-old John, the poshest of the posh boys, proclaims his daily read is ‘The Times’.

    by zut alors on May 26, 2012 at 8:28 pm

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