In his early 20s, director Michael Apted found work as a researcher on a British television documentary titled 7 Up. The 1964 program examined the lives and dreams of 14 seven-year-old children from diverse social backgrounds all over England. Apted directed the sequel, 7 Plus 7 (1970), which looked in again on those same children, who were now teenagers. While forging a successful Hollywood career (including Coal Miner's Daughter, a James Bond movie and a Chronicles of Narnia sequel), Apted has gone on to direct every film in this remarkable documentary series.
56 Up is the eighth and most recent movie in the series. Its Houston premiere was Sunday evening at the Museum of Fine Arts, which will host two more screenings on Wednesday and Friday afternoon. As a group, the films constitute a fascinating social document, chronicling not only changes in the lives of its subjects but also, obliquely, in the culture of England. The children grew up to become lawyers, cab drivers, forklift operators, homeless wanderers, librarians, and politicians. Several participants express frustration about the inability of the documentaries to tell the whole truth about their lives. But we get slivers of truth—sometimes funny, sometimes hopeful, revelatory, or sad.
Apted narrates the documentaries, and you hear his voice asking questions, but he stays mostly in the background. Only rarely, as when he accuses one of 56 Up’s subjects of bigotry toward immigrants, does his presence intrude. When his interviewees call him “Michael,” however, we’re reminded that they have known this man for nearly all of their lives.
What must that be like? One young girl swore after the first movie that she would never again subject herself to Apted’s questioning; a half century later, she has appeared in all eight installments. "I hate it," she says in 56 Up, "but I'm loyal. It's like reading a bad book. I'll still read it. I'll see it through."