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.

That’s when you goddamn sat up, because Neil’s story told you it was possible to f-ck up in a fundamental way, and that your 20s might be the field where that happened. To end up not merely poor, or chaotic, or a bit aswim — but friendless, shattered and annihilated. I suspect I am not the only one who quietly made a mental note to get a few essays in on time, and call people back more often, after seeing Neil.

“By 35,” as the mordant voice-over said, “Neil was living in Shetland.” He had gone as far north as he could and, near-hunchbacked, was organising the community play — from which he had to be removed for the sake of the community. And by 42 Up he was living in Hackney, a sort of smack-happy, Beirut-style theme park in East London, and was, inevitably, a Liberal Democrat councillor. 49 Up? In Cumbria, a councillor and lay Anglican preacher, and in 56 Up he was still there.

Heading towards retirement there had been no turnaround; no happy ending; no wide shot to reveal a partner. Like many of the other participants Neil was wont to talk about the limits of the series’ portrayal of them — yet unlike the others, he did not believe that there was some real “life” behind the appearances. By 56, he was arch and ironic about his own political activities, showing the crew around a toilet block he had saved from a round of cuts. Neil’s sideways lookabout the role he played was not cynicism, but it had the weariness of the Magus.

He no longer claimed — as he had in 35 Up — that people were writing to him for spiritual guidance (which they had been); he was simply resigned and clear-eyed. His presentation looked brittle compared to all the others with their spreading families, exes, careers, their quality of sprawl. But it could not be denied that his distance from the warp and woof of being, made the passions of the others, even their deepest loves, seem suddenly futile, like cats trailing a piece of string.

Neil’s path remains unique, a reminder that “life” is not an empty signifier, a term without meaning. Life is a thing, a qualia, capable of being absent. Life grips, comes in at the fingertips, is with you before you know it, if it’s there at all.Indeed it is that that is so moving, so disabling about the Up series — the sense that life appears, stains the air, disappears as fast as it comes. It is not the petty intentions of the participants, the path they cut through the givenness of existence, but the sheer presence of the world as supporting cast — the aged decor, the hair rising and falling over the decades, the men fraying like ageing boys, the women, as they pass the menopause, becoming different to themselves, their own mothers.

It’s the film stock too — the grainy black-and-white of the first films, which looks like cuneiform, the warm, thick colours of ’70s film stock, the hard edges of HD video. We know, somehow, that the world never looked like this, but we forget and fall into the illusion, that each era is sealed, that we pass from one to the other entire.

God knows what it has done to the participants — it must be as strange as being a president or a prisoner awaiting execution to be in the Up series, a place where you end up thinking: how did it come to this, why me, why this singular and incommensurable fate? Even weirder, their singular fate is to be general and typical. By now, they have ceased to kick against it (the only current non-participant is one of the posh boys, who became head of documentary at Channel Four). Instead, many seem to have ascended to a higher level of thinking about the process than they might have.

Episode two features the two country kids — posh angsty girl Suzy and farmer’s boy Nick who became a physicist — talking together (they have become friends via the series) about the way the series gives a partial picture of their lives, yet is still a worthwhile project. “It’s not a picture of me,” says Nick, whose professional life followed the pursuit of nuclear fusion and free energy, and is thus a failure, “but it’s a picture of someone“.

However contrived the cutting, however absurd cramming a life into less than an hour may be, the Up series retains the rawness, the bluntness of the British documentary tradition from whence it came. The Up series could only come from the British empirical socialist tradition, from the Mass Observation studies of Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings, the film documentaries of John Grierson, from the grim determination to capture in book and film, the sheer duration of existence, the elusive ordinariness of being here.

It stands in opposition not only to UK/US “reality” TV — which means contrivance that happens to be unscripted — but to the series of hoops we in Britain are currently being asked to jump through — a Diamond Jubilee in a country whose relation to the monarchy is grudging and ambiguous, an Olympics that will be an exercise in treating the local population as a mass to be funnelled this way and that.

In form, content and conception there is little like it in modernity, as singular as Ulysses or Brasilia, worth a shelf of overwrought, underdone literary novels. It’s a measure of the remnant existence of a real culture in the UK that the series can appear on Channel Nine. I wonder if there will be space for it on the ABC or SBS, between Randling, and some Matchbox series about ninja lesbian bikies who fight intolerance. And now … the Queen!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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