"I suspect that why this program is compelling and interesting for viewers is because, really, it's like Big Brother or I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. It is actually real-life TV with the added bonus that you see people lose their hair, grow old, and get fat. Fascinating, I'm sure. But does it have any value? That's a different question."
When John, one of the dozen subjects whose lives have been tracked in seven-year intervals for the British Up series, poses this question to director Michael Apted, he says it with a combination of genuine reflection and passive aggressive cruelty toward the probing camera and an increasingly voyeuristic society. But his question remains: Is there any value in peeking in on the divorce and work habits, the vacation homes, and dashed dreams of ordinary strangers? 49 Up and its predecessors (7-, 14-, 21-, 28-, 35-, and 42 Up) demonstrate that there is—if it's done correctly.
49 Up is the seventh film in Apted's incredible documentary series, which began in 1964 London. Fourteen children where chosen from different walks of life, and thrust into a captivating sociological study that threatens to continue well into their golden years. They were interviewed at length, and mused with precocious and sometimes heartbreaking sincerity on their ambitions, their attitudes toward money and family, the opposite sex, and—more subtly—class consciousness.
Then, every seven years, Apted and his documentary crew returned to his subjects to see how life was turning out, and in the process, to reveal how profound threads of continuity run through human life. (Two of the subjects dropped out of the project decades ago.) Watching the children grow into awkward teenagers, working-class parents, divorcees, tenured professors, homeless wanderers, and philanderers is both fascinating and moving, as Apted intercuts footage from previous films to demonstrate how childhood ideology manifests itself (or not) in adulthood.
49 Up might well be the most harrowing film in the series, with each subject settled into the deep, lumpy seat of adulthood. Several are grandparents, several are divorced, and several have health issues, but for the most part, their lives are—by their own admission—quite boring. It's still astounding to catch up with each of the individuals, though—specifically to witness the disparity between those who have stumbled into an "accidental" adulthood, and those who have essentially followed the path that they laid out for themselves 42 years ago. (The surprising conclusion: Neither one is a recipe for satisfaction.) 49 Up does not paint a pretty picture of middle age: When the very loveable Paul is asked if he still has ambitions, he replies, "Not really." Bruce, who by all external appearances leads a comfortable, modest life, offers the following bit of terrifying philosophy: "One's dreams go [away] in the day-to-day living of ordinary life, and family takes over. I think we just live without our dreams."
Almost all of the subjects speak to the excruciating discomfort of participating in these films, and the temperamental Jackie has trouble containing her scorn for Apted. Even though they were unwitting participants in this experiment as children and wary of the films' value now, their uneasy, prolonged participation belies their faith that this project is indeed worth more than the sum of its 12 evolving parts.