With the arrival of 56 Up, I think it’s fair to ask: Has Michael Apted’s now-legendary documentary series become more theoretically fascinating than actually fascinating?
If you’re coming into the project for the first time, it’s easy to understand how it could feel like a monumental achievement. A project nearly 50 years in the making, it began with a 1964 British documentary interviewing a group of 7-year-olds from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and life circumstances, with Apted subsequently re-visiting many of them every seven years. Watching this handful of characters grow from children to teenagers to adults—through parenthood and, in many cases now, grandparenthood—has been remarkable.
Where these men and women are concerned, however, there’s not much further for the story to go. Since the thesis of the original program was that the British class system locked kids into their future life circumstances at an early age, the work was in many ways done once we saw where they stood in mature adulthood. It may be comforting to check in periodically and see that Neil, Jackie, Suzy, Tony and company are still kicking around, but there’s nothing revelatory to be found. They are who they are, the continuation of the project perpetuating its magnitude simply by virtue of not stopping.
Indeed, the most compelling moments in 56 Up come when the participants reflect not on their lives, but on the experience of being part of the series itself: Peter, who dropped out of the program years earlier, returning to use the film’s platform to promote his music; Neil lamenting the way his mental health has been portrayed over the years; physicist Nick musing on the series being not just about them, but about “every person, how they change.” We’re learning little more about our subjects, but a lot about the ongoing process of history’s longest-running experiment in reality television.