Now We Are Seven: Parsing ‘The Up Series’

Seven Up By Stella Bruzzi BFI TV Classics 126 pages black & white and color photos

The British Film Institute once again proves itself to be an invaluable institution with the publication of Seven Up, Stella Bruzzi’s book-length analysis of Michael Apted’s landmark British television documentary, The Up Series. This small volume is part of the collection TV Classics, a new counterpart (the first volume was published in 2006) to the BFI’s longstanding Film Classics group. The intent of both collections is to take an individual title, or in the case of television, a series, and subject it to a microscopically detailed analysis, a method of approach that is directly linked to literary theory’s practice of “close reading” or “explication de texte.” In literary criticism, this approach “places a great emphasis on the particular over the general, playing close attention to individual words, syntax and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold.” Fortunately, in the field of moving image media, critical close reading is more broadly interpreted and is generally balanced by considerations of other aspects of the work. I myself once attempted to produce a rigorous explication de texte of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, but was halted before completion by an instructor who saw a graduate school essay metastasizing into a monster that he would actually have to read.

Bruzzi, luckily, was not deterred from completing her close reading of The Up Series. Her work is a continuation of the technique employed in her earlier book, New Documentary: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2000), which has since become a standard graduate school text. Seven Up is also, without a doubt, a graduate text. Few individual films or television programs of any kind, and fewer still documentaries, receive such book-length scholarly analysis. BFI Film Classics has done Riefenstahl’s Olympia, Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started, and Night Mail (all apparently, and unfortunately, out of print in the US). Other titles in the TV Classics series are about fiction—Seinfield or Dr. Who, for example. The Up Series, because of its longevity, its importance to British life and culture, and its unique status in the history of documentary, is a rich and deserving subject for a book. In writing it, Bruzzi had the cooperation of director Michael Apted and others involved in the filmmaking, as well as direct historical input from the invaluable film scholar Brian Winston. Providing a single source that summarizes many of the comments made about the series over the years is reason enough for Bruzzi’s publication.

Bruzzi assumes that readers have seen all, or almost all, of The Up Series, beginning with Seven Up!, first televised in the UK in 1964 as a single stand-alone part of the ITV Series World in Action. She also assumes that readers have seen the series on television sequentially at its proscribed seven-year intervals. This may be the case for UK viewers, but in other countries, audience experience has been quite different. In the US, the films have enjoyed theatrical release since 28 Up (1984), and many non-UK viewers who become engaged by the subject go back, often in no particular order, to earlier episodes via DVD. Since The Up Series in all its parts is must-see documentary, this publication also provides the perfect excuse to begin, catch up on or revisit the films.

The book is divided into three main sections: (1) Production History; (2) The Place of Seven Up within British Documentary History; and (3) Textual Analysis. Documentary Magazine readers may find Part 1 of most interest, with its comments from researcher cum producer Claire Lewis. This is the shortest section and does not discuss funding, problems of shooting in the field or TV ratings, although editing is addressed here and throughout. Especially useful in regard to editing is the diagram that examines how Up installments relate to each other through the listing of the visual and aural bits used to tell the story of one of the most fascinating characters, Neil, in successive episodes.

As a historian, I found Section 2 most interesting, especially in its discussion of England’s Free Cinema movement. Bruzzi insightfully presents the relationship of Cinema Vérité/Direct to Free Cinema, although I am not certain that its practitioners would consider that their films, “Did show how documentary could adopt some of the Lukacsian tropes of drama.” Section 3 showcases Bruzzi’s forte, as she is among the most skillful of documentary theorists practicing close reading. Her broader speculations about audience engagement with the Up subjects (whom she calls “the children”) are the most profound. Most people who watch the Ups become interested in the characters and are curious about what happens to them during the seven-year intervals. Bruzzi’s contention that this phenomenon is our own engagement with a collective past is especially enlightening. She also addresses the troublesome moral questions of filmmaker-subject relationship, and the impact that participation in a documentary can have upon a person. The curtain that shields the Up participants’ privacy in between visits remains closed here, as Bruzzi does not dig into anything off camera. That approach, if indeed it has any other value than the prurient, is outside the scope of this close reading. It also preserves the security and remarkable trust that Apted has built among the subjects over the years.

The book uses lovely black-and-white and color frame enlargements, footnotes, a bibliography and a useful listing of credits. Since some of the participants leave and reappear in different episodes, a naming of who participated in which installments would also be helpful. A good companion volume to this book is 42 Up (The New Press, 1998), basically an illustrated transcript of that film, edited by Bennett Singer with a preface by Robert Coles and an introduction by Michael Apted. These two, along with a DVD set of the entire Up Series from First Run Features will provide any lover of documentary, or observer of the shifting sociology of modern culture (an oxymoron?), with a solid and fascinating week of discovery. And it would be a week well spent.

© 2008 Betsy A. McLane, Ph.D. Betsy A. McLane is Director Emeritus of the IDA