Life in Ever-Widening Loops: On Michael Apted’s Up Series

Julia Marchese pays tribute to the late director with this personal appreciation of his towering, half-century-long documentary project.

If you were to ask me, “Julia, what’s the best ever use of the cinematic medium?” I would answer, without hesitation, “Michael Apted’s Up series.” It is the apotheosis of what the art form can be – not just moving pictures on a screen, but a decades-long deep exploration of class, gender, expectations and, ultimately, humanity itself. Because Apted very sadly passed away recently, I wanted to take a minute to exalt his masterpiece and hopefully convince you to watch the series, if you haven’t already.

The Up series began in 1964, when Seven Up chronicled 14 British children, purposely picked for their wide class divides and varied locations. Seven Up starts with the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the series’ hypothesis being that you could take these kids and, at seven years old, predict how and where they would end up as an adult. The films dig deep into how we think about happiness, family, class, religion, and a sense of place and purpose in the world. There are currently nine installments in the series; 63 Up was released in 2019.

I first saw the series when I was living in England, studying abroad at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, at a film club screening. We watched Seven Up!, 7 Plus Seven and 21 Up and I was absolutely hooked. The deep-seated class divide that specifically exists in England and which the films focus upon heavily was slightly foreign to me – I, of course, understood it on a human level, but not to the degree that someone brought up in the U.K. might. But it didn’t matter, because the subjects interviewed and the films’ scope are so much broader than that. I think it is why the films have done so well internationally, and have spawned so many lookalikes in so many countries around the world – because everyone can see a little bit of themselves in these subjects, can relate to them like friends, and watching them grow up is fascinating and often surprising, like life itself. I adore Britain, I always have, and for me, as an American, these films are a little like getting to peek into the psyche of the island, and I love that about them. The films delve ever deeper into each subject’s mind, really exploring how they feel about the world and their own place in it. As much as some of them hated participating in the series – because they were, after all, not volunteers for the first film, but chosen by their school – they begin to realize that these films are an important document of society at a specific time and place, and represent not just their own lives, but the lives of so many.

My favorite subject is Neil, a Liverpool lad who had a dangerous few years of homelessness and mental instability before finally righting himself and finding comfort in local government, theater and religion. Neil’s honestly about his mental state and views on society are so touching because they are so relatable and raw. And I think I relate to him most because he is, to me, the only one of the children that actually broke the mould of where we saw them at seven. In the last installment, Apted asks the subjects if they think it was true, that they were their true selves at seven, and almost all said yes. And I have to agree. Most of the subjects – give or take a little – pretty much end up on the path you would have predicted for them as a child. Which to me, honestly, is a little unnerving and begs the question of how deep economic status and location influences a child’s future, and also whether we are creating our own futures, or simply coasting along a destiny that was already set out in our youths.

Neil Hughes in Seven Up! (left) and 63 Up (right).

But Neil didn’t follow his “path” and I love that about him. As I wrote in my previous essay for Talkhouse, I identify with the outsider and the underdog, and Neil is that all over. These films give their subjects an incredible sense of self-awareness, so they are able to see themselves from outside, almost, and that has influenced my own life. Because I can only see myself from inside, taking the feedback and viewpoints of who I am perceived as by others is super helpful. It isn’t that I allow others to inform my identity, but that I see my identity reflected back in their words. Then I can ask myself, “Am I that person?” – which is what I feel like the subjects of this series must have felt a lot. Was their true self reflected in the film, or was it a person that Apted created through his editing?

I eagerly awaited the release of each installment, and before 63 Up was released, I took it upon myself to watch all of the other films leading up to it, in one day, in one sitting. Keep in mind, these films are made to be watched seven years apart. It was possibly the most fascinating movie marathon I have ever sat through. Because the films draw so much on footage from the previous installments, they become very repetitive, with the same dialogue being spoken over and over. As I got to the more recent entries in the series, the films became these ever-widening loops, each subject’s storyline becoming slightly bigger with each installation. It was absolutely mesmerizing and became almost like a meditation. I went home that night and – this has never happened to me before – my dreams picked up exactly where the last film had left off and continued, looping consistently throughout the dream and lasting all night, widening each subject’s loops beyond what was actually captured in the series. It was completely wild. I had never had films invade my brain in that way before and it made me very happy that these did.

I was lucky enough to see 49 Up, 56 Up and 63 Up on the big screen at the Nuart Cinema in Los Angeles, with Michael Apted in attendance for the last two. Seeing him live and hearing him talk about the films was fascinating. He was very witty and extremely dry, speaking with an honesty that is unusual in Q&As. He talked about his frustration with some of the participants’ hesitance in filming each time around, how each film’s filming process was lengthy, having to travel to meet all of the subjects wherever they might be in the world. He talked about the immense editing project, having to incorporate the new footage with what already existed in the series. Watching those films in a cinema, with an audience that was so excited – which had watched all of the films, and knew these people and cried and laughed along – was the ultimate way to see these films. Because the entire audience related and felt the emotional journey together, which is what this series is really about.

At the Q&A for 63 Up in 2019, Apted admitted that he predicted that that film would probably be the last in the series, and is actually edited that way, seeming to come full circle on all of the subjects and asking them to really reflect on the series as a whole, hitting home that their stories will be on film forever. When the audience voiced its dismay at 63 Up being the last chapter in the series, Apted admitted that his health was failing and that he very much doubted he would be alive for 70 Up. This roused an even bigger cry of dismay, which he waved off dismissively with his bone-dry British humor, prompting laughter instead from the audience. It was that duality about him that fascinated me – that he could dismiss his own death as flippantly as that for a laugh, but also that he seemed to have digested the magnitude of what he had created, and how it has affected so many. Apted committed to a project for more than 50 years. Let that sink in. Fifty. Years. What other director had that kind of long-term vision, the ability to not only tackle the logistics of such a series, but to also make it a brilliant, beautiful, probing and exposing look at what it means to be human, and happy?

Julia Marchese meeting Michael Apted.

Although Apted’s death devastated me, I was also somewhat prepared for it, since he had mentioned that he was quite sick at the Q&A I attended in 2019. I am so very glad that I went to that screening, because I have a vision in my head of him that I will always keep. Sitting up on the stage at the Nuart, his tall, lean body languidly reclining in the chair, a look of bemusement on his face and matter-of-factness in his voice, as he gave the greatest answer that I have ever heard, completely destroying the packed, rapt audience with laughter:

Interviewer: Michael, these movies are about change. Over all these years, how would you say you’ve changed?

Apted: Well, I’ve become more god-like.

Amen, sir.

Julia Marchese is a filmmaker, actor, podcaster, cinephile and film programmer living in Hollywood, California. Her first film was the award-winning documentary Out of Print, about the importance of revival cinema and 35 mm exhibition to culture, and she is currently the co-host of the popular horror podcast Horror Movie Survival Guide. She recently crowdfunded on IndieGoGo for her forthcoming Dollar Baby short film I Know What You Need, based on Stephen King’s story of the same name from Night Shift. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @juliacmarchese.