Peter Howell: ‘63 Up’ stars can see the end from here

63 Up

Latest chapter of the ongoing documentary social series by Michael Apted. Opens Friday at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. 145 minutes. PG

There was a blockbuster Marvel Comics movie this year, “Avengers: Endgame,” that had finality built into its title.

Another film, considerably smaller but much more culturally significant, could also have used “Endgame” in its handle: “63 Up.”

The participants in Michael Apted’s ongoing social experiment, which began with “Seven Up!” in 1964 and has become increasingly fascinating, have reached the age where they can see the approaching exit sign in their lives. The on-ramp recedes in the rear-view mirror.

They’re contemplating retirement or have already done so. One has died: children’s librarian Lynn Johnson passed away in 2013. Another seems not long for this world: engineering prof Nick Hitchon has aggressive throat cancer and a pessimistic prognosis.

“Once you get to your 60s, it all gets, oh, how much time do we have left?” says university administrator Sue David. A divorced mother of two grown kids, Sue has been engaged to the same guy for 21 years with no immediate plans to marry.

“It’s the longest engagement known to man,” she cheerily observes.

She’s not alone in her late-life confusion. Most of the “63 Up” gang are still sorting out matters relating to work and life, but most seem to be doing OK, including two that are doing better than expected.

Neil Hughes, afflicted with clinical depression and at times eking out a homeless existence, has in recent years been elected a town councillor, become a lay preacher and purchased a home in France. He still has personal woes, including his unexplained separation from his wife.

Cab driver Tony Walker is living in the English countryside with his long-suffering wife Debbie, who has had to put up with Tony’s infidelity and his dodgy business deals, which included buying a holiday home in Spain, which he’s since sold.

The couple are doing fine, and Tony says cheerily that he’s enjoying the fame of being part of the “Up” series. He talks about how he once had Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his cab, and a tourist came up asking for Tony’s autograph, not Buzz’s: “I’m more famous than Buzz Aldrin!”

Not everybody in the series is happy to still be a part of it. Suzy Lusk, a bereavement counsellor, chose to sit this one out, despite many entreaties from Apted. Always anxious about how she’d appear on camera, it seems her life just got too busy to talk about.

But most realize that time is too short to become preoccupied with what other people think or what some idiot said on Twitter. Everybody knows that if there’s a “70 Up,” it will be a very different account.

Andrew Brackfield, a successful solicitor now preparing for retirement, says there’s something about being in your 60s that makes you less fearful of public ridicule: “You’ve got less to lose, I guess.”

Everybody agrees that the original guiding maxim of the series — “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”— has proven to be pretty much spot on.

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“You got it right with me,” Tony says, but he jokes about Apted’s prediction that he’d end up in jail.

“You had visions of me being in the nick! I am a cheeky chappie, I’ll accept that.”

Such moments of joyful personal insight are why the “Up” series endures.

Peter Howell

TORONTO STAR