Up: Looking back at Michael Apted’s groundbreaking series
Ivan Radford | On 10, Jan 2021
There are lots of documentaries that claim to be groundbreaking. The Up series genuinely is. Following 14 British people since 1964, when they were just seven years old, the show went on to check back in on each one every seven years – a process that has now spanned 50 odd years, over half a century. In that time, the world has experienced Beatlemania, the Home Alone movies, Line of Duty, Donald Trump, and Pogs. Anything that can chart such cultural changes on a micro, individual level is an astonishing feat.
At the helm of it was the late Michael Apted, for whom the series was one of his first projects at Granada. Working as an assistant and researcher to Paul Almond, who directed the first documentary, Apted went on to direct every subsequent episode in the series, starting 7 Plus 7 Up, then 21 Up, 28 Up and so on – all the way to, most recently, 63 Up in 2019.
The series has given us a window into how countless cultural and social shifts have affected their lives, as its 14 Brits have matured from toddlers to adults with all of life’s complications and surprise. The result is somewhere between a science experiment and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and captures the latter’s sense of scale, universality and intimacy, as we see that kid who did that singing all those years ago or that farmer’s son now all grown up.
The documentary was originally meant to examine class background but has since left that focus largely behind. At the age of 63, when we last saw its participants, it’s not just the state of modern Britain that lingers in the background, but also the very real threat of cancer or the profound sense of perspective or humour that comes with living a rounded life full of joys and mistakes.
What’s remarkable is how recognisable they still are from the clips of them when younger. “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man,” Aristotle purportedly once said, and while the documentary quotes it multiple times, it’s a maxim that proves to be true time and time again, fostering a heartwarming sense of connection as well as recognition. In 2012, the show won a Peabody Award for its creator’s patience and its subjects’ humanity. You can’t sum up it – and Apted’s phenomenal work – better than that. If only there were another instalment on the way in 2026.
The 7 Up Collection is available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.