You may be surprised to learn that a 56-year-old British documentary series was my runaway favourite television/streaming show of 2019.
For those of you who haven’t heard of it, The Up Series started in 1964 when British filmmaker Michael Apted interviewed 14 British schoolkids aged seven at the time asking them about what they wanted to be when they grow up.
The children were specifically chosen from different backgrounds and classes as a kind of social experiment to see how things turned out for them given their upbringing and the opportunities presented to them.
The premise of the series was neatly encapsulated in the proverb repeated at the end of each season: ‘Give me a child at the age of seven, and I will show you the man (or woman it should have said).”
While 2019 saw the release of 63 Up, the latest (and possibly last) installment, I ended up watched the whole series from 7 Up onwards over a couple of weeks after coming across it by chance on SBS on Demand, (Australian’s multi-cultural television service for those who don’t live here).
It seems strange that I should find such pleasure in watching the lives of 14 total strangers unfold every seven years, or indeed to sit through around 20 hours of documentary filming that involves not much more than a camera crew returning to interview each person after the required hiatus and find out what they have been up to.
But, very soon – as if I were watching hit shows like The Sopranos, or Mad Men or Breaking Bad – I found myself emotionally entwined in the unfolding lives of Bruce Balden, Jackie Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Susan Davis, Charles Furneaux, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Suzanne Lusk and Tony Walker.
When the group turned 14, I wanted to see what they were like at 21, and then at 28 and 35, as they changed from disgruntled and sulky teenagers (for some) into young adults forging careers (or struggling to find themselves), then raising families, getting divorced, growing into middle age and contemplating all that has come before as a philosophical 63-year-old. It was glorious to watch.
Of course I had my favourites, these being intense Liverpudlian Neil, whose poetic musing on his battle with mental health issues and homelessness, and his stoicism frequently moved me to tears. There was also Tony the cockney East End cab driver (and part time actor) whose dreams of becoming a top jockey never came true, but who relishes how his brief racing career gave him one the greatest moments in his life, riding in a race alongside his idol, Lester Pigott.
Of course, I felt a connection to the earnest and softly-spoken Aussie Paul, who ended up moving to Melbourne soon after filming 7 Up, after his parents divorced.
Unexpectedly, I grew to like Andrew and John, who came from the upper classes, attended Cambridge and Oxford and whilst seeming to have an easy life of privilege awaiting them in the legal profession, grew somehow humbler and more interesting (especially John) as they grew older. Of course this one of the great charms of the series, that it reveals the many layers of people, and that things are not always as they appear.
I also loved feisty East Londoner Jackie, whose spirit never wavered despite raising three kids as a single parent and ending up reliant on a disability pension and upper-class Suzy, who despite calling the series “pointless and silly” appeared in all seasons, apart from the last one.
There is something truly magical (touching on the sublime) in watching people change over time – not just their physical appearances, (though those transformations are striking and startling), but in their circumstances, attitudes and views of life.
As one of the fourteen, Nick, a farming lad from a tiny village in rural Yorkshire who became an American nuclear physicist put it so eloquently: “The power of this series is not that it shows how one person changes, but how everyone changes.”
This idea of change and growth, compelled me to reflect on how I was at the ages of 7,14,21,28 and 35. Later, I hauled down a box of old photographs, which I thumbed through looking at images of myself at the Up Series age milestones. I thought about what I was like as a young school kid, teenager, young man and parent, the things I dreamed of achieving and what things I have accomplished.
I also thought about what awaits me as I grow older and approach the milestones of 49, 56, 63 – assuming I make it that far (here’s hoping!) and what I might do differently, what wisdom I have learned and – sadly – what dreams had not come to pass.
Frankly, every other show I watched last year came a distant second.
(But these, in no particular order, are my other favourite shows of 2019:)
- Get Shorty – two movie-loving gangsters end up as movie producers in Hollywood. Inspired by an Elmore Leonard novel. Originally a film starring John Travolta. Available on Stan
- Stranger Things – surely needs no introduction or explanation if you were a kid in the 1980s. Think: Stand By Me/The Goonies/Steven King/Spielberg + Winona Ryder. Available on Netflix
- Inspector Morse – the world’s grumpiest and most erudite detective. I am still making my way through all the feature-length episodes, most of which can be found (to varying degrees of quality) on YouTube. Or you can splash out on the DVD box sets.
- Mindhunter – two FBI agents establish a new division that interviews serial killers to gain an understanding of their psychology. Brilliantly acted. Available on Netflix
- Transparent – putting aside the furore over the conduct of star Jeffery Tambor, this groundbreaking show about a screwed-up LA family coming to terms with their father’s transition to a woman is a must-watch in my book. On Netflix.
- 10 Rillington Place – BBC retelling of the crimes of London serial killer John Christie, who is brilliantly portrayed in all Christie’s creepiness by Tim Roth. On Stan
- Unbelieveable – Toni Collette and Merrit Weaver play detectives trying to catch a serial rapist. Great acting and insights into the way victims are treated by police. On Netflix
If you’re looking for more comprehensive Best of Lists, here’s is The Guardian’s Top 50 shows of 2019 and the New York Times’s Top 50 list.
And these are the ones chosen by journalists at my newspaper, The Australian Financial Review. (You may need a subscription to get access.Just ask, I am happy to send you a copy).
2 thoughts on “Looking ‘Up’ – why a documentary series was my favourite show of 2019”
Thanks for alerting me to the latest instalment. It shouldn’t be difficult to remember to tune in every seven years, yet somehow I’ve missed the last two instalments. The last episode I remember seeing was “49 Up”.
That said, the “Up” documentaries are the original ‘binge TV’, and it’s always a pleasure to gorge oneself on them over a series of nights. I remember revisiting them a couple of years ago—including a couple of episodes, such as “Seven + Seven”, which had somehow managed to escape me—and finding myself as moved as ever by films which do hardly anything more than rehash the same heartbreakingly limited footage from episode to episode. (If Apted had known the rich symphony he was striking the first chords of in the first two episodes, I’m sure he would have made more effort to get more coverage of the children.) Yet somehow the cumulative effect of these ‘temporal portraits’ grows richer with repetition as the new footage is interleaved with the sedimentary layers of the old.
Truly the noblest end to which the art of shooting and cutting film has ever been put.
Great commentary Dean. It’s an amazing series