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Doc Watch: 56 Up

by admin January 4, 2013 6:00 am
Doc Watch: 56 Up

With 56 Up, Michael Apted's long-running documentary series officially leaves middle age behind and enters its autumnal years. For close to five decades now, the Up films have followed the same group of British men and women, checking in on their lives every seven years since they were just wee lads and lasses back in 1964. It's the cinematic equivalent of a photo album, albeit one that always aspires to mix some social commentary into its trip down memory lane.

With so many of life's major events and upheavals -- among them school, marriage, divorce, parenthood, unemployment and so on and so forth -- behind them, 56 Up finds 13 of the original 14 children having settled into a comfortable (if sometimes far from ideal) routine. Perhaps that's why this specific installment is, overall, the least compelling entry in the series to date. Don't get me wrong; I still greatly enjoyed catching up with these folks, but this reunion is more nostalgic than dramatic. With the big 6-0 rapidly approaching, they're more interested in looking backwards than forwards. And when they speak of the present, the focus isn't on lofty professional ambitions or personal goals, but rather finding pleasure in little things, like grandchildren, hobbies and travel. Even those participants whose lives haven't turned out exactly the way they've hoped are past the point of actively trying to make a change. By and large, they're just enjoying what they have now, before the advancing tendrils of old age start to tighten their grip.

Longtime followers of the Up films have their personal favorites who they most enjoy checking in with and that list frequently starts with Neil, who, fairly or unfairly, has served as the lost soul of the series. A cheeky cherub at age 7, Neil had a difficult adolescence (possibly due to mental problems that he declines to elaborate on) and spent a good portion of his 20s homeless in the wilds of Scotland. In his 40s, he embarked on a career in local politics and currently serves his rural constituency as a council member in Northwest England. It's a service he performs purely for the (pitiful) paycheck, however; he would much prefer to make his living as an author, but even his Up-inspired notoriety hasn't brought his work to the attention of any publishers, a fact he has no shortage of bitterness about. On the opposite end of the spectrum is another fan favorite, Tony, who dreamed of becoming a jockey as a boy, but grew up to find gainful employment as a cab driver (as well as a mini real estate mogul). An outgoing, gregarious man (a little too outgoing as we've come to learn over the years from his wife, who has stood by him through several infidelities) Tony seems to relish having Apted's cameras around; one gets the sense that, if he wasn't already part of this ongoing reality series, he'd be pitching his own Bravo-like Real Cab Drivers of London show. At 56, Tony divides his time between London and a second home in an expat community in Spain, which has been severely affected by the economic downturn. He has also become even more of a reactionary in his old age, commenting none-too-happily on the way immigration has changed the face of his native city. (The only time Tony comes close to losing his camera-ready cool is when Apted calls him out on some of his more prejudicial remarks.)

In other life updates, teachers Bruce and Nick are still educating young minds, the former as a private school math teacher and the latter as an engineering professor at an American university; Australian emigrant Paul is still happily living Down Under with his wife and extended family; Symon (the series' lone black participant) is still working as a forklift operator, but admits this time around that he probably should have applied himself to a more lucrative career, like accountancy; Suzy is still married with (grown) children and still expresses her unhappiness for Apted's seven-year intrusion... yet still refuses to drop out; lawyers Andrew and John are still in the legal trade, although they both show more enthusiasm for their extracurricular activities such as, in John's case, overseeing several different Bulgarian-related charities; and Sue still has a fulfilling career in the administrative side of academia and has recently started to scratch her acting itch by participating in community theater productions. The past few years have been a bit rougher for Sue's old classmates, though: librarian Lynn has been made redundant and occupies her time caring for her grandchildren, while Jackie suffers from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, but faces the loss of her disability benefits after being cleared for work by a review board. Finally, rejoining the series for the first time since 28 Up, former history teacher Peter uses the movie as an opportunity plug his country music band, The Good Intentions and Apted obliges, allowing the group to perform several of their songs for the camera.

If 56 Up is something of a pleasant bore while you're watching it, it gains more resonance when you think about it as the calm before the approaching storm. The next two installments will likely feature a number of significant changes, both in front of and behind the camera. Certainly, for the participants, questions of mortality, health and self-sufficiency will dominate the next decade of their lives. But there's also the strong possibility that Apted, who turns 72 this year, won't be there to document what lies ahead. And by now, the subjects have forged such a bond with him (many of them address him as "Michael" on camera) that his absence would change the series in a profound way. For all we know, this could be the last proper Up film, with all of the usual suspects present and accounted for. As potential capstones go, it may not be a triumphant curtain call, but it does allow viewers to bid a fond farewell to a series and a group of people we've grown up with.

Think you've got game? Prove it! Check out Games Without Pity, our new area featuring trivia, puzzle, card, strategy, action and word games -- all free to play and guaranteed to help pass the time until your next show starts.

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