Rich and rare: docs that unfold over decades

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Real-life characters in PBS documentary series

Casts you know better over time — Left column: Apted subjects Paul (with wife Suzy) in "28 Up," Suzy and Neil in "49 Up." (Photos: First Run Pictures.) Center: Betty and Reggie, Scott and Amber, and Toni and Kelly of "Married in America." Right: Williams' subjects hotel builder Zu Weimin, rapper Wang Xiaolei and housewife Yang Haiyan.

Real-life characters in PBS documentary series

Casts you know better over time — Left column: Apted subjects Paul (with wife Suzy) in “28 Up,” Suzy and Neil in “49 Up.” (Photos: First Run Pictures.) Center: Betty and Reggie, Scott and Amber, and Toni and Kelly of “Married in America.” Right: Williams’ subjects hotel builder Zu Weimin, rapper Wang Xiaolei and housewife Yang Haiyan.

If you stand quite rightly in awe at Michael Apted’s 49 Up, which aired on P.O.V. [in October 2007], you’re likely to be cheered by the news that a Frontline producer is now in postproduction to start similar series of periodic interviews with nine diverse people in China.

Sue Williams, who has had several China docs on public TV, aims to return to her nine diverse Chinese subjects through 2024 and produce a new broadcast every five years. The introductory program of Making It will be ready to air on Frontline next summer before the Olympic broadcasts from Beijing, as the outside world prepares for its longest sustained stare into the nation that could dominate world history for the next century or so. [Williams’ Young & Restless in China will air June 17, 2008.]

Williams’ project is the latest of a handful of “longitudinal documentaries,” as Apted calls them, inspired by his seven 7 Up films: an extended time exposure of 14 Britishers that takes a click every seven years. Roger Ebert, the critic, is not alone in hailing this project. He said it’s “the most notable use of film that I’ve been able to witness as a filmgoer.”

There’s also a project of this kind underway in the United States called Married in America, produced by public TV producers Dale Riehl and Steven Lawrence. More on that project below.

Apted’s docs shot over the course of decades could be mistaken for reality TV, but they’re not the same thing. They’re redemption for the hope that nonfiction TV can represent something so close to real life. They’re great in exactly the way that reality TV is not.

Reality TV is forever on the make. Its producers can’t wait for life to unfold. Before next season, they must contrive a steady outpouring of conflicts, emotional peaks and water-cooler sensations.

Longitudinal docs are greatly rewarding to viewers in a way PBS achieved most memorably with certain Sunday-night serials, which became favorite weekly appointments for months and spanned years as novels do. Their characters would be welcome for repeat visits years later.

The marathons Upstairs Downstairs and The Forsyte Saga represented the ongoingness of life — the couples tricked by lust or duty into reproducing, the resulting offspring, their emotional inheritance and damage, and how they learned from history or not.

In two seasons on PBS, Gregory Nava’s American Family got right to work in this fertile emotional territory with the multigenerational Gonzalez family, reaching into the afterlife for cameos by the late mother’s ghost. And Prime Suspect, by virtue of its repeated comebacks, grew beyond a crime series to flesh out an unforgettable policewoman we followed 14 years, unto her reluctant retirement.

These programs deal with the very basic things that stir people most deeply — love, death, faith and faithlessness, growth and decay, childhood, parenthood and the old ’hood where it all transpired.

Of course, it can be difficult to continue suspending disbelief when some of the writers and producers resort to creaky plot devices, preposterous coincidences and all kinds of eye candy to maintain their hold on us.

Could we have a little more reality?

Nonfiction epics like Ken Burns’ The War surely have the power and resonance of stories told after adequate reflection. But few documentary-makers try to document life and family over a very long time.

Following a subject for even a few years is heroic work for both the filmmaker and the subjects.

Viewers want more, however. Note that millions of viewers will turn out to see even a cheesy reunion of an old sitcom cast.

The power is magnified, the curiosity rewarded with meaning when real people become characters in a documentary. We yearn to know the rest of their stories. What’s up with Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter, for example, whom we met nine years ago in David Sutherland’s The Farmer’s Wife, or with Chris Johnson, the smart, screwed-up kid in Sutherland’s more recent Country Boys? To viewers who grew up near the South, Chris could seem awfully familiar, a kid struggling to escape a web of low expectations and often losing. Midwesterners by the thousands testified that the Buschkoetters, too, were the real thing.

On rare occasions we get glimpses of how life plays out for real people we came to know through intimate docs. Alan and Susan Raymond, who filmed the landmark 1973 series An American Family, somehow arranged to revisit the Loud family for a sequel a decade later. Then, in 2002, the Raymonds composed an epilogue after the death of its eldest and most entertaining son, Lance, who literally invited judgment about his short life of “drinking, drugging and unsafe sex.”

Sean as a boy and as a young manLife has a different outcome in Following Sean, a film by Ralph Arlyck that aired in July on P.O.V. Arlyck happened into a longitudinal doc. He says he never plans anything; he loves to discover things and take tangents.

In 1969, when Arlyck was a beginning filmmaker, he lived in Haight-Ashbury. It was the height of flower power. Arlyck made a short film about Sean, a sharp little 4-year-old who lived in the crash pad upstairs, going shoeless and smoking weed. Sean became a symbol of decadence for those who wanted to see it.

In 1995, Arlyck took a tangent. He began going back — a dozen times since then — to see how the adult Sean is turning out. The message comes across: Sean did not become the human trainwreck that some viewers predicted. He’s been working hard as an electrician and pre-law student. His life contrasts sharply with his dad’s enduring hippie ways. Life is unpredictable and fascinating to watch.

What Dave Isay and his StoryCorps team are doing with their massive collection of personal audio storytelling is a big idea of the magnitude of Apted’s 7 Up series, though more latitudinal than longitudinal, I’d suppose.

It’s very different from the docs Isay had made for radio, or the video docs of the Raymonds or Sutherland, who attempt to be present, with tape rolling, when their subjects have a significant confrontation, transition or revelation.

The do-it-yourself StoryCorps interviews by ordinary Americans, which often deliver the biggest emotional wallop of anything you hear on Morning Edition, look back at those moments instead. They’re retrospective, like the Apted interviews that reflect on the past seven-year period and what came of it.

People have processed their memories and boil them down to their wisdom, Isay says.

Though Isay admires the 7 Up films and enjoys the cliffhanger that comes every seven years, he has seldom gone back to his own past subjects. He tends to regard them as family. It wouldn’t be appropriate, he says.

But StoryCorps could someday become longitudinal even without the help of professional producers, if the interview volunteers start coming back periodically. One New York teacher has brought in 80 students and acquaintances for interviews, Isay says, though he thinks she hasn’t brought any back a second time. So far.

Apted’s little Brits, born in 1956, first sat for interviews by Granada Television in 1963, when they were 7 and Apted was a research assistant, age 22. But the company saw it as a single doc in the series World in Action. There was no talk of doing it again.

Six years later, the head of Granada approached Apted in the company canteen and suggested going back to the kids, Apted recalled at a British Film Institute screening. He went back and saw “the beginnings of a powerful idea.”

Jackie, Sue and Lynn (above) grew up in Apted’s series in 1963 to “49 Up” in 2005, aired in the States two years later on “P.O.V.”

The filmmaker returned to his subjects for their seventh film in 2005, when they were 49. By then Apted was well established as a movie director in the United States, credited with Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mistand even a James Bond film, among many others, but he knew the interviews were the work he’d be remembered for.

Viewers can expect that each film will open with scenes from that first Granada broadcast, with an announcer intoning the Jesuit line, “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.” Indeed, the kids’ core personalities shine through their aging faces — the compassion voiced by Bruce, who taught in inner-city schools for years, and the high energy of Tony, the would-have-been jockey whose interview starts each film with a kick.

Those enduring core personalities only goes so far, however. “You never know what life is going to chuck at people,” Apted has said. Nick, a confident university physicist, bet his career on cold fusion working out. Apted was sure Tony would become a criminal, he told Ebert in an interview, but Tony made a good living as a cabbie, raised a family and now dreams of opening a sports bar.

Life chucked a big one at Neil, first seen skipping happily as a 7-year-old, who developed what he calls “a nervous complaint” when he was 16, became a college dropout and squatter when 21 Up was filmed and felt utterly hopeless in 28 Up. Though still tortured emotionally, he has dived into local politics. Apted says he can see a sparkle in Neil that had been gone for years.

Apted is adamant that his series is not reality TV. He doesn’t contrive unreal situations and insert people who’d never go there. In casting the first Granada Television show, Apted didn’t knowingly choose walking timebombs who’d explode on cue.

But Granada did stack the deck in one respect. The company, which had a “very left-wing” streak, set out to prove that the British class system still ruled, he said. It sent him out to recruit subjects from the rich and poor extremes of society. The films gave proof to a jaw-dropping degree, as the upper-class youths revealed they attended the same boarding schools and universities they had predicted at age 7. Movie critics later noted that the only poor child who sent his or her own child to college was Paul, who emigrated and raised his family in Australia.

With its focus on rich and poor, Apted said at the BFI screening, Granada had only two middle-class subjects and neither helped tell the social story of the era — Margaret Thatcher’s revolution and the boost it gave the middle class.
The class-divide theme nevertheless gave the interviews a structure that helped viewers absorb the barrage of stories about 14 lives. In later films, other themes rose to the surface.

The “7 Up kids,” upper class and lower, mix in a rare behind-the-scenes publicity shot when they were 21. (Photo: First Run Pictures, theatrical distributor for “49 Up.”)

Good marriages, for example, seemed to have had a nearly miraculous positive effect on the confidence and happiness of Symon and Paul, who grew up poor in a children’s home, as well as Suzy, an upper-class girl.

“That’s why we wanted to do Married in America,” Apted said.

The American project began by filming nine weddings in 2001, with Apted as interviewer. “It’s so good, you’ll throw rice,” Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg wrote about the first show before it appeared on the A&E Network in 2002.

Many fans of the 7 Up series have never heard of it, however. It didn’t help that the two-part second installment of Married in America went to the Hallmark Channel in 2005. (The second installment DVD is available on the New Video label.)

The producers are looking for funding to shoot their third installment next summer, says Dale Riehl, co-producer with Steven Lawrence. [Update: In June 2008, Riehl says the producers have raised money to shoot a major development in the lives of one couple and a major cable network is interested in backing a new season.]

Riehl, a onetime PBS staffer was active in the startup of Nightly Business Report, Newport Jazz Festival specials and Capt. Kangaroo’s PBS run. Lawrence worked with Riehl on Vis à Vis international specials, and developed Age 7 in the USSR when the superpower was about to implode.

They gave the energizing lead segment, comparable to Tony’s in the British series, to Reggie and Betty, a seemingly delightful match of black and white friends from childhood. The bikers Carol and Chuck are another story; they split up before the second film, though the producers plan to continue following them. Others are over-driven achievers and a pair of lesbians from New Jersey.

Just as class was a simple organizing theme for the British shows, separation and divorce may help viewers keep score until things get more interesting. “Marriage or life takes a long time to reveal itself,” as Lawrence remarks.

Though Married in America has a six-year head start, it has no network commitment at last report, and NBC will be angling to play Apted’s role in this country. In September, NBC began airing installments of “Class of 2020” on the Today Show, with plans to follow 20 children through high school.

Sue Williams knows well that there are major uncertainties in her plan for shooting Making It over the next 20 years in China.

In 2001, when she was midway through production of “China in the Red” for Frontline, a major figure in the film, Mu Sui-xin, activist mayor of the northern city of Shenyang, was sentenced to death on corruption charges. She flew to China but could never see him again. He died of cancer in prison.

Williams expects the fates of her nine subjects will illustrate China’s predictably enormous changes over two decades. They include young capitalists, workers (one of them “probably made the earphone for your cell phone,” Williams says), an environmental activist, a hip-hop artist and a migrant worker whose mother was kidnapped by human traffickers (she travels with Williams to find her mother).

“We tend to demonize China so much,” Williams says. “This is an opportunity to see how ordinary people live there.”

Each viewer distills her own meanings from these films. Williams, who knew the 7 Up films all her life, growing up in England, says she identifies with Nick, who left his home country and knows he won’t see his parents many more times in life.

A 7 Up film commonly reminds viewers of the sweep of life, the great and not great things about it, and how finite it is. It’s food for thought, if not prayer.

“You see your own life flash past,” Apted observed about his quick cuts between child, adolescent and aging adult. The effect will grow more powerful every seven years, along with the life issues ahead and perhaps the interaction with Apted, as he enters old age. In four years, if all goes well, Apted will be filming 56 Up.

Apted says he’ll keep it up if his subjects do, but he said he didn’t try to reach into the next generation. In the editing room, it was hard enough to keep one generation’s story straight, he said.

Theoretically, the sweep would get broader, the stories richer in the next generation, but there are human limits for both subjects and filmmaker.

Arlyck, who didn’t really plan to go longitudinal, nevertheless likes the idea of a friend, the late filmmaker Dick Rogers, director of A Midwife’s Tale. Rogers wanted to start an ongoing series that would outlast its filmmakers.

With endowed funding, they’d document a person, a place or an institution for years, then hand down their films and outtakes. And the next generation would carry on.

This article has been corrected from the print edition, which erroneously listed Michael Apted as a co-producer of Married in America. Photos also were added for the Web.


An American Family, the groundbreaking public TV documentary saga, aired in 1973 and was brought back in 1999. After Lance Loud’s death, a third and possibly final installment aired.

The multigenerational Forsyte Saga was such a success with viewers that WGBH created Masterpiece Theatre for later British imports and it aired a Forsyte series remake in 2002-04.


Sue Williams’ first report in her series, Young & Restless in China, airs on Frontline June 17, 2008.

When P.O.V. presented 49-Up, the series website presented photos of the subjects through the years, starting with Tony, and an interview with Apted, the director.

Trailer for 49 Up.

Married in America site with introductions to the couples.

PBS distributed a new version of the fictional Forsyte Saga in 2004. Series I and Series II.

NBC committed to a longitudinal project for the Today Show: Class of 2020.

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