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Formats Unpacked: The Up Series
How a slow, long, story about social class became 'The noblest project in cinema history'
We work a lot with clients who do one-off campaigns. It’s how it’s always been for them, but coming to digital via TV and Radio we’ve always had seasons and formats in our DNA and are always interested in telling stories over time.
Occasionally we help clients switch from campaigns to formats. We believe formats that people return to helps build loyalty with audiences that you lose with campaign thinking. It’s not a simple decision to make though. Format thinking requires leaving comfort zones, committing to new time-scales, and changing rhythms.
I mention this because today’s format is probably one of the most remarkable leaps from a one-off event to a story that takes a lifetime to tell - quite literally. It’s the second-longest-running series on TV in the world, just behind Coronation Street. If you live in the UK and are of an age to have experienced a large dose of it, it feels as much a part of our culture as Fawlty Towers, Sherlock Holmes, and punk rock.
This week I’ll be unpacking Michael Apted’s wonderful Up series.
What's it called?
The Up Series (Documentary series)
What’s the format?
A longitudinal documentary series that follows the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old. The documentary has had nine installments, one every seven years. The first was called Seven Up, the second Seven Plus 7, and then 21 Up, 28 Up etc. The last to air was 2019’s 63 Up.
What’s the magic that made it special?
The series started, as most great ideas do, over a beer in a pub. TV director Paul Almond and Granada TV producer Tim Hewart were chatting about Britain’s class system. Almond wondered to what extent social class would determine the future of the nation’s children. Tim mentioned the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”, and the idea for one of the greatest documentaries ever made was born.
The magic in the format is simple - time. The commitment to a body of work over the decades becomes more important than the individual updates every seven years. Originally, the series was only meant to be a 40 minute one-off for Granada TV’s World in Action. But five years after Seven Up was first aired, director Michael Apted, a researcher on the show, was asked by the head of Granada - “Have you ever thought of going back and seeing what has happened to them?” Michael jumped at the chance to direct the next series, and despite plans to move to the US to begin a career directing movies (including Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist), he committed to directing any future versions of the show should they be commissioned.
The slowness of Up allows the stories to unfold in a natural and unflashy way, ending each series with cliff hangers that will only be resolved by the remorseless passing of time. The class divide theme it was originally commissioned to explore ended up being just a prompt for broader stories about love, religion, gender, mental health, and happiness to unfold (something we’ve seen happen a few times in Formats Unpacked). Every seven-year period sees new themes emerge as the contributors’ lives change, whilst earlier concerns fade to the background. Starting with the death of Lynn between the last two series, we can expect mortality to become a recurring theme until the show finds its own natural end.
This consistency is a key part of the magic. The format hasn’t tried to change with the times or keep up with trends. Other than switching from black and white to colour, and moving from film to digital, the show has ignored the distraction of social media and reality TV, and has remained structurally very similar across each series.
When Channel 4 launched Big Brother as an observational ‘social experiment’ in 2001, the format demanded regular interventions from the production team to contrive conflicts and emotional peaks to satisfy its audience. There is no such manipulation in Up, and the sentimental hand of the director is nowhere to be seen. When a story is told at this pace, the drama of life provides enough poignant and joyous moments to satisfy an audience who recognise their own lives in the stories of Tony the cabbie, Andrew the lawyer, or Lynn the librarian.
When you commission something like this, with such a simple premise and broad scope, there is a huge risk that you don’t know what kinds of stories you’ll end up with. But time has a habit of delivering drama, and inevitably a tipping point comes when the body of work as a whole is as important as the individual stories. Future iterations, regardless of how well they’re received individually, will improve the series, simply by virtue of what a remarkable achievement the project is. Like watching the movie Boyhood, you’re treated not just to the story itself but to the wonder of how it was made.
28 Up is my favourite episode. At the ages of seven, fourteen, and twenty-one, most of the participants are looking forward to their lives ahead. By the age of twenty-eight, life is happening to them at pace, and they can look back as well as forward. We see this more than anywhere else in the painful story of Neil, the adorable boy from Liverpool who wanted to be an astronaut (all my friends in college were convinced he was going to turn out to be Ian McCulloch from Echo and the Bunnymen). By 28 Neil had suffered mental issues and was now homeless. He would have redemption in later series, but this moment, when the arc of a child’s story starts to hit rock bottom, has the kind of emotional impact that only a project like Up could provide.
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We’re thinking of running a live Zoom series and inviting producers, exec producers, and people who make content that people come back to, to chat about their work and their formats they love. Would you be interested in watching that? Let me know.
As always, if you are interested in unpacking your favourite format do get in touch. Back next week.