56 Up is a novel approach to documentaries. The documentary is part of a series that started in 1964 with interviews of 14 seven-year-olds. Every seven years these individuals are visited, questioned, and filmed. A new version of the documentary is released and the interviewees go back to their lives—until another seven years has passed.
56 Up weaves together interviews of the individuals—now 56 years old—with interviews of family, friends, and acquaintances. The series started out as an exploration of children from different classes in the UK. Explicitly, it was an investigation into what sort of lives children from different classes end up living as adults.
The stories are varied: children from different backgrounds and upbringings leading disparate lives. I wouldn’t necessarily say that any of their life trajectories were necessarily predictable. Children from poorer backgrounds ended up leading successful lives—successful by all measures. I did notice though that the so-called well born who went on to prestigious schools did end up leading very financially successful lives.
Was there and still is there a class system? Yes.
Politics and economics came up in conversations. Often the recessions and their impact on people were discussed, with the realization that all is harder on generations following the interviewed individuals.
The documentary itself came up in conversation too. I was surprised by the number of individuals that expressed a reluctance to being in the documentary, but something akin to seeing the project through to completion kept them participating. One individual dropped out after being attacked for political views that he expressed in his twenties; he is back in 56 Up to promote his new band.
In general, it is not clear that this project has been very good for the individuals involved. As one couple mused, the documentaries really show a very small slice of an individual. A shot here, a word there, and suddenly we assume that we know their lives and their thoughts. Perhaps rather than being a record of these 14 individuals, 56 Up is more a look at the general evolution of people over their lifetimes.
At its best, 56 Up gives us a glimpse into how class doesn’t necessary influence success broadly defined but how education and opportunities—both of which have been squeezed over the last couple decades in the UK and in the US—are key to ensuring that class (or economic status, if you prefer) isn’t linked to success or failure.
The documentary also lets us see how varied lives are and the trials and tribulations that we all share.