Watching the “Up” Documentary Series (Film #4, 28 Up)

This past weekend I watched the fourth film in the “Up” series, 28 Up.  Tonight I’m going to watch the fifth film, and I can see that I need to restructure the way I’m writing about each film.  Every week, as another seven years gets added onto the lives of the “Up” series subjects, my blogposts become more and more difficult to write.  So next week, I’ll try using headings to post VERY brief updates on each person and then use most of my space to talk about things in the film that struck me as important and interesting.  For now, though, I have to subject you to another long, rambling essay.  (Sorry! 🙂 )  If you’re even willing to wade through it (and, if so, thank you in advance!).

Just a heads-up in case you haven’t seen the film yet but decide to watch the DVD: about two-thirds of the way through 28 Up, the credits begin to roll and the closing music plays.  Several people seem to be left out of the movie.  If you wait out the closing credits, though, you’ll be rewarded by the opening credits starting up for the “Part 3” episode of 28 Up.  There is no similar dividing line earlier in the film.

So, in 28 Up the children are definitely all adults.  Most are married or about to be, some have children, and almost everyone is engaged in the adult world of  work, whether inside or outside the home.

Tony, the East End jockey-turned taxi driver, owns his own cab and appears to be successful financially.  He is married with two small children and another on the way.  He belongs to a country club/golf club, where apparently he is sometimes confronted by people asking if he is a member . . . because there is something about him (his cockney accent?) that leads them to think he is trespassing and doesn’t belong on the grounds.  Tony is also an actor, which he describes as a sideline.  He and his family travel abroad on vacations; he plans for his next destination to be America.

Bruce, the soldier’s son who lived at the scary boarding school at age seven, is now a teacher at Tony’s old school in London’s East End.  Bruce lives in a “council house” apartment, which appears to be a public housing project, within walking distance of the school.  The ethnic makeup of Tony’s school looks quite different from 1964; now the majority of students in the school (and neighborhood) appear to be immigrants from Africa and India/Pakistan/Bangladesh.  Bruce teaches math (or, “maths,” as the narrator says) to students in their early teens.  He says he had been working for an insurance company and hated that job.  The schools were so desperate for math teachers that he was put into a classroom after a very short period, with minimal training.  Bruce is not married and doesn’t seem to be in a relationship.

Nicholas, the Yorkshire farm boy who wanted to be a scientist, got his Ph.D. from Oxford and went to work for England’s Atomic Energy Research labs.  He was shocked to discover that the salary from his position as a professional scientist actually sent his standard of living downward from what he’d had as a student.  And he minded, which also surprised him because he’d never really paid that much attention to money.  When he learned about a faculty opening at the University of Wisconsin to teach and do research on nuclear fusion, he decided to take the job and emigrate to the United States.  Nick is married to a woman he met at Oxford when he was 17; she is also an academic.

Suzi (which I spelled “Suzy” in previous posts but saw her name written on the screen for the first time in 28 Up) was the wealthy girl who lived with her father on his 4,000 acre estate in 7 Plus Seven.  In 21 Up we learned that she had left school at 16, gone to Paris, attended secretarial school, and taken a job.  She took long trips abroad but didn’t seem to have interest in anything much.  She greatly preferred cities to the country (as in her father’s estate), and she couldn’t imagine herself ever living a rural life, as there was nothing to do.  She was cynical about marriage, felt she was far too young anyway at age 20, and expressed a disliking for babies.

Suzi has changed more than any of the other “Up” subjects in the seven years since the previous film.  Whereas she was chain-smoking and very tightly wound in 21 Up, Suzi doesn’t smoke at all (at least not onscreen) and seems genuinely happy, quite content in 28 Up.  In 28 Up, we also learn that Suzi married at age 22 and has two children.  She and her husband Rupert, a solicitor, live in a beautiful home in the pastoral countryside outside of Bath.

Of the three prep school boys, only Andrew returns for an interview in 28 Up.  Charles is apparently gone for good, at least as of 56 Up.  He is a television journalist now; we see a black-and-white photo of him sitting at his desk with his feet propped on a chair, talking on the phone.  John also has provided a photo, a color portrait of himself seated in a chair next to a table in a spacious, elegantly furnished room.  His office, perhaps.  John has become a barrister, just as he had planned.  The narrator tells us that John is satisfied with what he has already said in the Up films and feels he has nothing further to add.

Andrew is working as a solicitor at a London firm.  He married a very pleasant young woman who describes herself as a “Yorkshire lass,” instead of a “haughty deb” someone like him might have married in the normal course of events.  Andrew’s wife works and is frugal.  At one point she mentions that instead of buying lots of dresses, she might buy two; Andrew adds that she pays for them, too.  The couple live in London during the work week and spend weekends in Kent, where they are transforming a barn into a home.  Andrew’s interview is filmed on the farm, where we see him and his wife picking berries and working around the place.  The picture presented is of a comfortable, peaceful, happy life.  Andrew and his wife no doubt work hard, but they seem very happy, content, and grounded in their simple values and lifestyle.

Jackie, Lynn, and Susan—the three East End girls—are interviewed together in someone’s living room.  I’m guessing Lynn’s, because we later see some footage of Lynn and her husband and children working on gardening and motorcycle repair outside their new home in Kent.  Jackie is still married but has not had children.  Susan, the only unmarried one of the trio in 21 Up, is also married, with one child.

The two boys from the charity-run children’s home, Paul and Symon, are both married.  Symon has five children, and much of his interview is broadcast in voiceover form as we see him at the zoo with his wife and kids.  His segment didn’t make much of an impression on me this time.  He seems happy to be raising a houseful of children and providing them with a stable, happy childhood.  He is content in his job at the meat freezer; it gives him an adequate income but still allows him time to focus on his family.

Paul is still living in Australia, where he is still working as a bricklayer, having gone out on his own since 21 Up.  He married the woman who was his girlfriend in 21 Up, and they have two children.  Paul and his wife seem like a real team.  They traveled around remote northwestern Australia early on in their marriage, camping outside their van and coming to rely on each other in a way that makes them very self-reliant as a couple.

In fact, of all the married couples shown in 28 Up, Paul and his wife seem to have the best relationship.  Everything about them suggests a couple truly in love, from the way they physically relax into each other when sitting for their interview to the affectionate way they interact and talk about each other during their interview.  They laugh a lot, smile a lot, and really seem to enjoy being together.

This is in sharp contrast with the unease that is apparent between Peter and Nick and their wives.  What I see there is not so much an unease between the women and their husbands as it is an unease with their “roles” as wives.  Both of those women seem intelligent and accomplished, and that seems to be the root cause of their tense edginess.  Much of what they say in their interviews reveals their conflictedness about what it would take to balance their own professional identities with the demands of motherhood.  This unease comes out looking like anger toward their husbands.

When Peter’s wife is asked, for instance, what it was about him that she fell in love with, she laughs shortly and says, “Who said anything about love?”  When asked about whether she and Peter will have children, she says that such a decision should be left up to the woman because no matter how liberated a man is, it is the woman who will really be the one bearing the responsibility for childrearing.  When the interviewer, director Michael Apted asks if Peter is liberated, she gives an evasive attempt at a diplomatic response that lets us know in the end that, no, she doesn’t think so.

When Apted asks Nick’s wife about children in their interview, she says that she doesn’t want to be the one stuck at home while he lives an adult life.  She actually interrupts Nick to make her points, so strong are her emotions, and her tone becomes somewhat belligerent and argumentative.  The camera is on Nick’s face during part of the time she is talking, and you can see him swallowing at one point and a jaw muscle clenching at another, both involuntary physical reactions that, for me, amplify the discomfort in his carefully neutral facial expression.

I bring up Peter’s and Nick’s wives because I can empathize with their feelings of conflict and anger.  And I also can see that anger at ideas in isolation from context is not possible: both women seem to be turning their frustrations with society’s strictures toward the actual men who love them but who have unwittingly entrapped them in society’s box through the simple act of marrying them and thus transforming them into “wives” instead of the individuals they previously were.  It makes me sad for both the women and the men.

Finally (and maybe illogically, since I’ve already talked about Peter’s wife 🙂 ) we come to Peter and Neil, the two boys from a Liverpool suburb in Seven Up.  In 21 Up Peter was in his last year of college, living in a flat with several other students and unsure of what job awaited him following graduation.  He hoped to find a job that could make him happy, but he wasn’t expecting to.  And he didn’t.

In 28 Up Peter is a teacher, married, and living in a “terraced” house (i.e., a brick row house with a tiny backyard separated from the other tiny backyards by high brick walls) that he’d recently purchased in Liverpool.  When the interviewer (director Michael Apted) asks Peter what the high points of his life have been, Peter cites the time somebody scored a goal in the 1977 European Cup (I think that’s what it was; I know nothing about soccer, which I assume he is talking about) and also cites some of the enthusiastic responses his band has gotten while playing in clubs around Liverpool.

Does Peter get the same emotional charge from his teaching job, the interviewer asks.  No.  Peter doesn’t like his job particularly, saying that teachers are undervalued and underrated.  Apparently schools and teachers are not getting the support they should from the state, because Peter also makes a few critical remarks regarding the uncaring government (this being the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives are now in power).  Peter also admits he’s lazy.  He says his college education was a joke: he basically just showed up for occasional lectures and exams and got a degree.

Neil, the bright, happy seven-year-old who had dropped out of college and was squatting in an abandoned flat and picking up odd jobs on construction sites in 21 Up, is now receiving some form of government assistance and living (for the moment) in a trailer in a beautiful part of Scotland.  Neil and his parents reconnected after the somewhat hard comments he made about them and their upbringing of him in 21 Up.  He and his parents have learned to understand one another better, and possibly best of all, in Neil’s opinion, they have all learned when to say nothing.

Neil has apparently received “treatment,” the narrator tells us, so mental illness is implied.  Indeed, Neil does seem somewhat physically distressed.  Whereas he fidgeted and spoke in clipped, rapid phrases during his 21 Up interview, in his 28 Up interview he tends to rock forward and back.  His speaking is still measured, filled with pauses but not issued in short, angry-sounding bursts.  Nor does Neil seem as agitated in this film as he did seven years ago.  I do notice, though, that when Neil seems troubled by certain questions, his rocking to and fro becomes more pronounced.  He almost seems to be rocking as a way to calm himself, possibly to gather his reserves and gain the momentum necessary to respond.

I’m no psychologist or psychiatrist, so this is strictly armchair theorizing, but from the start in Seven Up something about Neil has seemed to fit the profile of a person “highly gifted” with intelligence.  According to a Huffington Post article by Marianne Kuzujanakis, director of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG), giftedness is often misunderstood as mental illness:

Highly gifted children are a particular diagnostic challenge. They seem to be wired differently and have developmental trajectories that differ from the norm. Many gifted kids experience the world with heightened and vivid intensities and sensitivities that may be a big plus (allowing them to become creative artists, scientists, inventors, and humanitarians) but also can be a big minus (subjecting them to sometimes overwhelming emotions and worrisome and unacceptable behaviors).

Remember Neil’s remark in 21 Up that, upon viewing Seven Up and seeing the “evidence” of his bright happy self, he thinks that at age seven he lived in a”wonderful world” where everything was “sensation”?  Sounds a lot like that description above: “Many gifted kids exerience the world with heightened and vivid intensities and sensitivities.”  For Neil, the “big plus” apparently never happened, and he has unfortunately grown used to the “big minus” associated with the way he experiences the world.

For example, in 21 Up Neil says he can see that by the second film, 7 Plus Seven, he was already starting to put more thought into what he said, and my impression is that he means not in a good way.  In 28 Up Neil says that socializing is hard for him because he’s not one to go into a pub and make small talk.  If he’s going to talk with someone, he wants it to be about something that matters, like literature.  He realizes that other people don’t share his enthusiasms, which makes it hard for him to fit into “normal” society.  This is often the case with gifted individuals.

According to the Kuzujanakis article and other things I’ve read, high intelligence can ironically be inversely related to achievement in school.  Gifted individuals often enthusiastically pursue learning about things that interest them, but they lack motivation to “perform” learning tasks they aren’t interested in.

In describing his rude awakening upon arriving at university and discovering he wasn’t the “genius” he had been led to believe he was, Neil mentions his passion for learning about things that interest him in a way that strengthens my hunch that he might be gifted:

I don’t think I was so much “clever”; I just think I was quite enthusiastic, particularly when it came to O-levels.  I was enthusiastic about the subjects I was studying and therefore, with the help of good teaching, I was able to get good results.

How many O-levels, Apted wants to know.  Neils says he doesn’t want to boast; he had 10 O-levels and 4 A-levels.  How were his scores, asks Apted.  Very satisfactory, says Neil quickly, as if yes, his scores were good, but he wants to move on to another subject.

Would 10 O-levels and 4 A-levels have been impressive in the mid-1970s?  Was Neil justified in his stunned bitterness about being rejected for admission by Oxford?

That is something I still think about occasionally and think, “Yes, I think I could have done well.”  I don’t think I was half as clever as I was told I was.  I think unfortunately I grew up against a background of people of pretty average intelligence.  I don’t think I went to a school that was full of bright people. . . .  I think I went to university expecting to be something of a genius and found that this wasn’t the case at all.  And this is a good thing for me; I think it’s very good that I didn’t come to that opinion.

School appears to have been a poor fit for Neil, and he dismisses the value of formal education:

No formal education can prepare anybody for life.  Only life can prepare you for what comes.  And sooner or later you’re going to cross certain barriers, and I don’t think you ever cross those at school or at university.  You come across the problem of mixing with other people.  But the real problem of becoming a success in the world is one you have to tackle yourself.

One theme that emerges from Neil’s interview is his awareness of the world’s external expectations and his own intrinsic nature and personal goals . . . and his longstanding struggle to find balance within those conflicting reference points.

At age 14, Neil was very aware of externally set levels of achievement and competition with others trying to reach those externally set goals:

Being in Set One, it’s very, very hard to keep up with the leaders.  I never have the time to relax at all.

At age 21, he seems to recognize that he is not as in tune with the expectations of the external world as other people are, and he wonders why he has failed to achieve as they have:

I don’t know what sort of stumbling blocks should be put in a child’s way to get him used to living in the outside world.  I think maybe this was something that was wrong in my upbringing, that I didn’t have enough obstacles to get over.

By age 28, he realizes that trying to achieve external measures of achievement has been harmful to him, and he has opted out of that rat race.  At the same time he appears to recognize that meeting internal standards of achievement is important and not as harmful to himself as meeting the expectations of the outside world would be:

I still set myself high standards if I’m doing something I want to do.  But that’s important.  That’s not too bad, I think.

The article by Kuzujanakis doesn’t mention the existential angst experienced by gifted individuals, which, according to other things I’ve read, they experience far more frequently and intensely than people of normal intelligence.  Much of what Neil says to explain his vagrant circumstances seems to be directly linked to this:

I might be unemployed, but what my background has given me is a sense of just being part of a very impersonal society. . . .  The suburbs sort of force this kind of feeling on somebody.  The most you can hope to achieve is to have the right to climb into a suburban train five or ten times a week and just stagger back for the weekend.  The least is just unemployment.

What Neil finds so repugnant about suburban life is

The cheap satisfaction in so many things, the aimlessness.  But I think the total lack of God is at the bottom.  Nobody seems to know where they or anybody else is going, and nobody seems to worry.  You finish the week, you come home, you plug into the TV set for the weekend, then you manage to get back to work on Monday.  And it seems to me that this is a slow path to total brainwashing.  And if you have a brainwashed society, then you’re heading towards doom.  There’s no question about it.

He acknowledges that he’s not living in “some sort of nirvana” but says that if he were living in a “suburban bedsit” (renting a furnished room), “I’d be so miserable, I’d feel like cutting my throat.”

We see familiar clips of Neil at seven saying he’d like to be a coach driver and at age 14 expressing his desire to travel and stating that he still thinks that being a coach driver would be a good job.  In light of his early articulations of an aspiration to travel, it’s interesting that Neil is sort of living his dream by hitchhiking around England and Scotland.

When asked about what kind of work he might like to do in the future, Neil thinks perhaps he would enjoy giving lectures on subjects he’s read a lot about, or maybe work in the theater doing lighting or directing a show.

Apted asks, “Is all that lost to you?”

Neil replies, “It does seem to be.”  He thinks for a moment, then adds:

It seemed for a long time that getting a reliable job and a nice place to live would be the solution.  Well, I haven’t succeeded.  I can’t see any immediate future at all, but here I am.  I feel, especially sometimes when I’m on my own, that I’m losing touch with the way other people live.

Apted brings up Neil’s treatment for what Neil describes as “a nervous complaint” that he’s had since age 16.  Neil denies that he has received “treatment,” although he acknowledges that he’s had to see doctors sometimes.  He says he’s gotten lots of advice, but “the best treatment is kind words, and it usually comes from somebody who has nothing to do with the medical profession.”

Adding to the actual struggle of maintaining his mental health, Neil also is quite aware of how greatly the world disapproves of someone’s “nervous complaint” and recognizes the need to shield his internal emotional state from external scrutiny.

You can’t afford to go around looking depressed.  That, in itself, is bad enough.

Kzujanakis quotes two experts in her article on giftedness who say that because the mental health profession has failed to recognize the signs of giftedness in children and adults, many people are not getting the right help.

Dr. William H. Smith, former dean of the Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry and Mental Health Sciences, stated, “Giftedness can be confused with some psychiatric disorders, obscure other disorders, and it often needs to be included in treatment planning.”

Dr. Jack Wiggins, former president of the American Psychological Association, stated, “This is a widespread and serious problem — the wasting of lives from the misdiagnosis of gifted children and adults and the inappropriate treatment that often follows.”

Obviously my talk of giftedness in this post is just me speculating from a great distance in time and space.  I have yet to visit Neil in 35 Up, 42 Up, or 56 Up; and even though I saw 49 Up several years ago, I don’t remember much about it.  What a tragedy it would be, however, if it turned out that Neil’s IQ was off the charts and his potential was squandered because his emotional and intellectual gifts didn’t fit society’s normal, recognized markers of intelligence (i.e., grades, leadership, and other achievement within school).

I think I’ll wrap up this very long (again!) post with some of Neil’s thoughts about God and life.

I don’t think of God as a creature, but I think of something—time, destiny—which is regulating everybody’s affairs and which you cannot fight against and which you cannot order about. . . .  I prefer the Old Testament to the New Testament because in the Old Testament God is very unpredictable, and that’s . . . how I see him in my life.  Sometimes very benevolent.  Sometimes, seemingly, needlessly unkind.

When asked at age 21 how he hoped director Apted would find him seven years in the future, Neil said he hoped to be married, have children, and have a job that provided satisfaction and a salary that allowed him to live comfortably.

At age 28, Neil has none of those things, all of which are measures of achievement by the external world.  He seems to have reconciled himself to the fact that those measures don’t jibe with his true self.  “I’m happier now,” he says.  “I don’t have such dreadful yearnings.”

Apted asks Neil, doesn’t he ever think “what a waste” or that he’s “better than this”?

“No,” says Neil.  “I don’t think I’m better than anything or anybody.  I’m just somebody with my own particular difficulties, my own thicket of obstacles to surmount.  And everybody else is doing exactly the same thing.”

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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2 Responses to Watching the “Up” Documentary Series (Film #4, 28 Up)

  1. I’ve always wanted to see this series. So fascinating!


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