Michael Apted’s Up series are deceptively poignant “little films” but also no less than murals across the canvass of time. Layering fuzzy sepia-toned 60’s footage against sharper and sharper images of the human condition, the documentaries are multiple-leveled collages of celluloid, social strata and emotional timbres.
What do other people see when watching Tony, the scrappy little East End boy who dreamed of being a jockey once and now is content in beer-bellied old age alongside his charmingly dowdy black-haired English Rose? We can’t help but have a sense of parental pride at his achievements as he describes his children and summer home in Spain.
And John, once the smug child who spoke through pursed lips with precocious contempt for his public school counterparts, finds himself in Bulgaria helping misery-ridden children. Neil, who appeared hopelessly desperate as a raggedy 21 year-old, then even more so as a homeless man, rebounds to become a council member in the countryside.
Apted’s series is a sort of automatic writing of society’s story. The twist in 49 is his occasionally stark insertion into the narrative – most memorably when attacked by one of his subjects for being manipulative.
If there’s one quibble it’s that there’s maybe less drama than when the likes of Paul, Jackie or Bruce were seven year olds mirroring their social class or emerging adults struggling to transcend it. Instead we see the deeper imprints of middle age etched on their brows. But Apted’s technique of continually circling back to younger versions of the selves in front of us, like rings around a tree’s trunk, holds a fascination that endures.