Watching the “Up” Documentary Series (Film #5, 35 Up)

This past weekend I watched 35 Up.  As I said in my last post, I’m going to try a different approach in structuring my thoughts on the film this time around by first providing a brief update on each of the film’s subjects and then summarizing my overall reactions.

First the updates:

Tony — Still driving a cab, which he owns.  His wife also drives.  They split shifts to accommodate caring for their children.  She drives during the day, then quits in time to pick up the kids from school.  Tony goes to work, comes home to eat dinner with the family, then goes back out driving till 1:00 in the morning.  Tony’s mother died within the last couple years.

Bruce — Still teaching, but currently spending a term teaching in Bangladesh, through an arrangement with his school in London in order to better understand his immigrant students.  Not married; says he has had “affairs,” most of which ended amicably, but just hasn’t met the right woman yet.

Nick — Still teaching physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is an associate professor (meaning he has gotten tenure, because promotion from “assistant” to “associate” usually goes hand in hand with receiving tenure).  Nick says his wife, Jackie, was surprised and unhappy with the way she appeared to be in the last film, so she doesn’t want to participate this time.  Nick and his wife have a son now, who also doesn’t appear.  We do see some footage of Nick’s parents and brothers back on the farm in Yorkshire.

Suzy — Still married to Rupert, a solicitor who has quit his law practice to become a real estate developer, at least that’s what the description of his work sounds like to me, renovating older buildings for use as offices.  Although her name appeared onscreen as “Suzi” in 28 Up, it is spelled “Suzy” this time.  Suzy and Rupert have three children, two sons and a daughter.  The older boy is now a “day student” at school (meaning, I guess, that he doesn’t board there).  Suzy and Rupert have moved, so I’m not sure if they’re still in Bath.  But they live in a rural area, with a small town.  Although Suzy worries that her children’s lives are too “cossetted,” she is glad that they can live a quiet, untroubled life for the moment, at least.  Her middle son has a “volatile” personality and some learning disabilities, and Suzy expresses concern about putting him into the right learning environment, but her tone of voice is calm, and you get the feeling that she’ll work this out.  She admits to some financial worries regarding the health of her husband’s business when the economy was bad, but again she seems remarkably calm in talking about the possibility of losing her home and material possessions, as though it is something she will take in stride if it happens.

The East End girls

Jackie — Married at 19 and now divorced.  In 28 Up Jackie was the only one of these three women without a child.  She said she was too selfish and didn’t want the responsibility.  She now has a son, who is the result of a “brief” relationship.  Her family (father, siblings, relatives) is very supportive, and she clearly adores her son, who looks to be maybe a year and a half old.

Lynn — Still married with two daughters, still working as a school librarian.  Lynn has some sort of health problem involving extra veins in her head, recently diagnosed and possibly requiring surgery.  We see her walking with her husband, and she also seems to have a little stiffness in her knees or hips because she has a slight limp.  Lynn’s mother died two years ago, and she is having a hard time getting over that.

Sue — Only recently married in 28 Up with a son, Sue has since also had a daughter and divorced her husband.  She is working in London, where we see her on the job and on the train going home.  Her clothes are fashionable, she wears a fair amount of makeup, and we see her out for the evening with friends, many of whom are also divorced women with children.

The prep school boys

Charles — Still working as a television journalist for the BBC.  We see a black-and-white photo of him sitting on a curb looking quite handsome.

John — Working as a barrister specializing in corporate work, mergers and acquisitions.  Married to Claire, daughter of a former ambassador to Bulgaria.  John’s grandfather came from Bulgaria, and John is raising money to provide health supplies and services to people there, especially disabled children at an orphanage.  John visits his grandfather’s farm, now apparently owned by the state.  He says there’s been some talk of returning land to the families, and he would like the opportunity to own his grandfather’s land and make needed repairs, as the buildings are falling into ruin.  John works in London but has a country home where he spends his weekends playing piano and gardening.

Andrew — Still married to Jane the “Yorkshire lass,” with whom he has two sons.  They live in Wimbledon, and we see the family walking around a slightly wooded field and also skiing somewhere in the snowy European Alps.  Andrew still works as a solicitor, doing corporate work.

The charity-run children’s home boys

Symon — Does not appear in this film, nor is he even mentioned.  No photograph or anything.

Paul — Still married, with two children.  Still living in Australia working as a bricklayer.  Apparently had started his own business, with employees, but realized that he is not the type to be a “boss.”  Worries about the future a bit, especially the physical aspects necessary to doing his job as he gets older.

The Liverpool suburb boys

Peter — Does not appear in this film, nor is he even mentioned.  No photograph or anything.  Almost all of his portions of the now-familiar dual interview with Neil from Seven Up have been edited out.  In part this makes sense: why show someone speaking at age 7 who is not going to be interviewed in the current film.  But it’s a little jarring to see how he has been excised when the clips with Neil are shown.  Originally the boys’ interview was a joint conversation, with Neil and Peter sitting side by side telling us about their school.  This is what I’m used to seeing, so it’s very strange to see only Neil’s part of the interchange in 35 Up.

Neil — Poor Neil.  Still jobless and living on social security.  Living in public housing in West Shetland.  But Neil seems to have developed a community of people who know him.  We see him stop in at a little shop for groceries, and the proprietress greets him warmly and engages him in conversation.  Neil has also become involved with local theater, performing in a play (or, as the flyer calls it, a “pantomime”) of Beauty and the Beast.  We see Neil in performance, and he does very well as an actor, I think.  Neil directed the play last year, but his name was not put forward for the job this year.  Apparently, from the way he describes the problem to the interviewer (director Michael Apted), Neil was too demanding, too much a perfectionist with his cast and crew of locals.  Neil is also writing.  He has a typewriter, and it appears he is writing plays.  So, just as Neil’s hitchhiking in 28 Up seemed to fulfill his childhood dream to travel as an adult, so also does his writing and work with the theater seem to fulfill his stated desires in 28 Up to lecture on subjects he had researched and to work in theater doing directing or lighting.

And now, here are my overall reactions to 35 Up:

At age 7, all the participants were cute children.  At age 14, many seemed awkward and uncertain.  At age 21, they still seemed like children to me, even though they were legally adults.  By age 28, everyone clearly was launched into their adult lives.  Now that the participants are 35 years old, my biggest overall impression is that they are beginning to get worn down by life, that the edges are starting to fray a bit.

Tony all but admits to cheating on his wife.  He talks about how “opportunities” have presented themselves when he’s been on vacation in Spain (without his wife, I guess), then says something about “birds” (attractive women) and how when you get home the wife is giving you that look of “I know, but I don’t want to know.”

Neil’s peripatetic lifestyle has taken its toll on his appearance.  His hair appears patchy with bald spots, which it did in 28 Up, as well.  Not the usual male pattern balding, but the kind of patchiness you might associate with stress and malnutrition.  His skin is also quite weathered; during his interview I could see from the contrast with white skin on part of his neck not normally exposed how permanently reddened his neck and face have become from the cold winds of northern Scotland.

Several of the participants have suffered the death of one or both parents and are very torn up by it.  Lynn has a serious health problem, something involving extra veins in her brain.  And the other two East End girls, Jackie and Sue, have gotten divorced.

Three of the participants—Neil, Jackie, and Sue—have been welfare recipients (“social security,” it appears to be called in England).  Neil has been receiving assistance for years.  Jackie and Sue apparently received help temporarily, like maybe a year—for Jackie following the birth of her son (the result of a “brief” relationship), and for Sue following her divorce.  It’s not completely clear whether or not Sue is continuing to receive aid.  But it’s striking that 3 out of 14 participants, slightly more than 20% of the group, have received financial support from the state by age 35.  I don’t know why that surprises me, but it does.

Money is sort of an interesting theme in 35 Up.  No one seems overly fixated on it, at least in their interviews.  Everyone acknowledges its importance to being able to live a comfortable life, but not everyone is able or willing to do what is necessary to have the income needed to afford that.  Although Jackie says she doesn’t know where the money will come from that she needs to raise her son, she expresses confidence that it will turn up, as it always does.  Bruce considers his life a success despite a low income because he has found meaningful work.  Suzy apparently has come to terms with money from the opposite direction, countering criticism of her wealth (implied? actual?) by saying that she can’t change what she was born into.

My only really critical comment regarding this film has to do with its presentation.  Director Michael Apted changed the way he structured the “Up” films starting with 28 Up.  In the first three movies, he had certain themes/topics and he grouped all of the children’s responses around those topics.  For example, he asked all the children if they had boyfriends or girlfriends; he asked what they thought about public political issues and events, like the trade union strikes; he asked them to talk about their belief in God.  While this structure caused 21 Up to be very rambling, I found something very intriguing about hearing everyone’s ideas and thoughts.  You really get insights into who these people were, as well as obtain glancing oblique views on what was happening in England in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 28 Up, though, Apted began to structure the films not around topics but by person.  We see Tony, then we see Bruce, then we see Suzy, then we see Nick, etc.  We start with a film clip of each person at age 7, then view sequential clips of all their interviews through time of the current movie.  I’ve been watching these films with one of my daughters, and by the middle of 35 Up she was bored.  The structure has become routine to the point of dullness.  I miss hearing each person’s thoughts.  Apted has taken largely to providing biographical updates for everyone and staging action (like bringing Paul’s family from Australia to London to visit to all the usual tourist spots).

I hate to say this, but because of its structure 35 Up feels a bit like the obligatory annual Christmas letter from distant relatives with factual updates that lack meaning because the context is absent.

Maybe if I had seen these movies at seven-year intervals instead of a new one every week this summer, viewing that same sequence of clips over and over, accruing new weight with each new film, wouldn’t be so irritating.  This is a problem I’ve noticed in my favorite series of mystery novels, as well.  Not only does the first chapter need to introduce the current story, but it has to reintroduce all of the familiar characters to new readers, as well as rehash the plot of the series’ continuing storyline, as well.  Balancing the new reader’s need for background with the tedium it causes old readers must be a very difficult task.  Similarly, Apted’s job of creating a film that is both a status update bulletin and at the same time a standalone work of art must be very challenging.

In the end, 35 Up feels somewhat similar to 21 Up to me, in that everyone seems suspended in time somehow.  Everyone is busy with the details of their lives—their children, their jobs, their social causes, their projects.  They’ve gotten their careers and families going (or haven’t), and they now seem to be simply going forward along the path they’ve set for themselves.

It’s like they made a big push in their very early twenties to set up their lives, and now at age 35 most of them are following through on that earlier momentum by doing the hard work of maintaining what they previously put in place.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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4 Responses to Watching the “Up” Documentary Series (Film #5, 35 Up)

  1. hello, doc… i’ve read your series and i found it illuminating and fascinating. hope you’ll write more of this kind… warm regards. 🙂 ~san

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  2. Sacha Rafferty says:

    I just watched the entire Up series over the last two days. I was engrossed!. Watching the children grow and change over the years was one of the most fascinating and unique cinematic experiences I’ve had to date. I can’t stop thinking about each character. I would love to find/create an online community to discuss emerging themes, arc of character, and insights viewers are gleaning from the films.

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    • What a great idea! I’m not on Facebook, but I wonder if there might be a group there? I’ll keep my eyes open for such a group, and if you find or create one, would you let me know? I, too, think it would be interesting to share insights gleaned from the films. As one person said, I think Nick, the movies don’t show the person (i.e., the whole/real person), but they show a person . . . and that’s what makes for the insights, I think. We don’t really know these people, but we know their “screen” selves.

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