56 Up: Michael Apted's seven-year itch
Every seven years the director Michael Apted has tracked down the subjects of the 1964 television documentary Seven Up to record their progress. Now they are 56, will the latest instalment be the last we see of them?
If you were looking for someone to play God in a film, you could do worse than cast Michael Apted. With his austere features and silver hair, he is just the right mix of executive authority and grandfatherly wisdom. He is at once severe and benign, forbidding and welcoming. Of course, to the 14 Britons on whom his gaze shines down every seven years in the documentary series Up, Apted probably does seem Godlike.
'I’m not sure about me looking down,’ he frowns when I tell him this. 'Looking down implies judgment. I prefer to think that I’m looking at their lives.’
Slouched in an armchair at his West Hollywood office, in jeans and a checked shirt, Apted, 71, is more of a comfortable-looking fellow than a divine being. Despite the tan, the Starbucks clamped in his right hand and a jauntiness that is very much LA, there is an underlying British awkwardness. In a bowl on the table between us languishes a selection of the high-energy protein bars on which the entertainment industry subsists. Apted could probably use the gigawatts: with 56 Up – the eighth in the series of Up films he has worked on since 1964 – just wrapped, he feels drained.
'49 was so difficult,’ he says. 'I thought then, I can’t do this again.’ And yet seven years later Apted found himself ringing round the 14 British 'children of 1964’ whose romances, divorces, careers and redundancies he and the television-watching public have followed for half a lifetime.
'That part is always the most challenging,’ he says, smiling. 'Establishing who wants to take part and who doesn’t. We’ve never had legal contracts with any of the participants so the hardest thing about the whole project is to get them to agree to it.’
What is astonishing is that any of them do agree. Why should Jackie, Lynn and Sue, schoolfriends from east London who have had their share of misfortune, keep opening their doors to Apted? How is it that Symon and Paul, both of whom had bleak starts in a children’s home, keep coming back? What’s in it for Bruce, the saintly maths teacher who put his vicious boarding school experiences behind him; or Neil, the unpredictable Liverpudlian whose struggle with mental health issues struck a chord with so many viewers; or Tony, the adulterous cabbie? And wouldn’t it make more sense for Suzy, Andrew and John – the privileged trio – to demur politely?
Apted is honest about the tactics he engages to coax the participants out of anonymity. All of them are paid ('the same amount – I’m not going to tell you how much’), but in the era of reality TV and big cheques, that’s not always going to cut it. 'In the early days I would use bullying and emotional blackmail: “You’ve come so far, why leave now?”’ He will use his own sacrifice as an example too. As a sought-after film director (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist, The World Is Not Enough), it is not always easy for him to find the time. 'Still, every seven years I leave Hollywood to do this. I’ll always carve out six months of the year for it, no matter what is going on in my life, because I think it’s so important.’
Some, such as Jackie Bassett (who after a divorce, and then separation from her long-term partner when she was 42, is now a single mother of three boys), actively look forward to the moment coming around again, even though she has one of the more combative relationships with Apted. 'I enjoy doing the programme and want to see it to its natural conclusion,’ she tells me. 'There aren’t many people whose lives have been documented as ours have been, so while there have probably been times when I wished I hadn’t said something or was not in a good place in my life, I would never stop doing it.’ It doesn’t really affect her life, she says, 'except for maybe a year before the programme, when I’m scrambling around trying to think about what I’ll say, and about three months after when people recognise me.’
It is this aspect that John Brisby, who has been in and out of the documentary over the years, and Suzy Lusk, once a desperately shy and awkward teenager who is now happily married with three children, still find uncomfortable. In 49 Up Suzy spoke of it being possibly her last contribution to the series.
'They’ve always taken the most persuading because they don’t like the press attention and I certainly don’t pay them the kind of money celebrities get to deal with all that,’ Apted shrugs. Some of them, he concedes – Tony Walker for example – do enjoy the momentary celebrity, and others use the documentaries as a kick up the backside ('God, I had better do something,’ they’ll tell Apted when the call comes in).
'Then there’s Neil,’ he sighs, 'who sometimes just buggers off and is the hardest of all to get hold of.’ It took Apted’s co-producer three months to track Neil Hughes down for 28 Up, eventually finding him, homeless, in Scotland. By the time of 49 Up, Neil had drifted from Scotland to Shetland to a squat in London before settling in Cumbria as a Lib Dem district councillor.
'There’s always been this front,’ Apted says, 'like the proper thing to do is to be slightly dismissive of the documentary.’ But when 49 Up was aired, he felt for the first time that there was a sense of ownership among the participants. 'They were actually proud of it. John, who has always put it down, in a good-natured way, was even asking what the ratings were.’
Perhaps for that reason – and despite the gruelling six-month filming schedule, which took Apted and his team as far as Australia to catch up with Paul Kligerman and his family – Apted feels that 56 Up is 'different to the rest’. 'Somewhere between 49 and 56 they’ve become more empowered. They took charge this time and that’s good.’
Was it simply a confidence born of middle age?
'It’s partly because they’re in their fifties now, but it’s also about them being a bit more savvy. They’re determining much more what they want to talk about so there are many more surprises and a looseness that wasn’t there before. On a negative side, I suspect there’s a bit of resignation there too: this is where they’ve got to in life and probably where they’re going to stay.’
Apted’s tone when discussing his subjects veers between fond and scientific. He likens them to family 'in both a good and bad way’ and keeps in touch to varying degrees with some of them in between episodes (Nick Hitchon – the Yorkshire farmer’s son who became a research scientist and moved to America aged 28 – visited Apted in LA). But there is also the detachment of the documentarian there, an occasional coldness that has all the hallmarks of a reality TV producer. 'The notion that real people can play out drama is one of its foundations,’ Apted admits. 'I’m not here to trash reality TV, but what we do isn’t contrived in any way.’
That detachment is particularly marked when Apted goes back to the origins of the series. Inspired by the Jesuit maxim 'Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, it began as a one-off World in Action documentary, Seven Up. 'For me it was less about being seven than making a political statement,’ Apted admits. A 22-year-old law student fresh out of Cambridge, where he had been recruited by Granada TV, he was as aware of his own good fortune as he was 'of the unfairness of British society’ – that you were predestined to have a certain life depending on your class. 'Middle-class puritan families function off guilt and that’s what drove me on.’
It was Tim Hewat, Apted’s pioneering boss at Granada in London, who came up with the idea. 'He suggested we put a camera on the roof of our offices in Golden Square and point it at 20 children down below,’ Apted says, smiling. '“Line them up,” he told us, “then tell five of them to step forward and say these five will make it in life and the other 15 won’t.” That really was the idea.’
Apted had three weeks to recruit 14 seven-year-olds – seven from underprivileged backgrounds and seven from wealthy backgrounds – through the school system. Nobody knew then how important the middle classes would become under Margaret Thatcher, and what a glaring omission that would be. 'We operated at the edges of society, not in the middle, and in doing that we lost a lot of very valuable stuff,’ Apted says.
Granada’s point about the English social system was facile and quickly made. It was in deciding to revisit their subjects seven years on – with Apted having graduated from researcher to director – that something more important was born. 'The moment of realisation didn’t happen until 28,’ Apted says. A jobbing director in LA by then, he had shown friends the documentary and been surprised by their reaction. 'They really got it. I saw then that it had a universal element: that I wasn’t really doing what I thought I’d been doing. It was still a political thing, in that Charles Dickens’s characters are political, but these individuals weren’t symbols. The politics of the film was how the England they were living in had affected their lives.’
You would think that living on a different continent would help to keep Apted objective, but he suspects the films would be better had he lived in Britain. 'I miss great chunks of English news out here. I know that if we started it again now, it would be a very different film. It’s incredibly hard to be objective,’ he says, grimacing. 'I have fierce rows with documentarians at movie festivals. They’ll insist there’s something pure about the documentary and impure about movies, but that’s absolute bollocks. There are big parallels between directing movies and directing documentaries. Each episode in Up is a piece of drama. So how do you feed the hours of footage I have through to the audience in a dramatic way? Equally I’ll approach the fiction I work on with a documentary eye: in the James Bond film, when the story involved pulling gas out of the Caspian Sea, I insisted we went to see it. The point is always to take a piece of material and bring it to life – not to leave my fingerprints all over it.’
Yet every edit Apted makes as a documentarian is a judgment call. 'Of course it’s my perception of these people that ends up on the screen. But I try to be even-handed about it.’ Some would claim that he has failed in that regard. 'I have made mistakes,’ he concedes. 'I was very hard on Nick’s wife in 28 and she never forgave me for it and refused to let both him and their child continue.’ He pauses. 'She thought I represented her as an unpleasant woman and I don’t know whether she was right or wrong, but their marriage didn’t last and that was nothing to do with me.’
Yet in scrutinising an individual’s life, it must be tempting to second-guess how they might turn out. 'I definitely predicted that Tony would end up in prison when he was 21, which is why I did this whole sequence of him showing me the criminal hotspots around London.’ Apted got this wrong. 'If anything it was a lesson not to try and play God. It’s important to block out my thoughts. After all, what are my values? I’m a middle-class neurotic who believes in success.’
Ambitious and neurotic he may be, but Apted – the son of an insurance worker from Ilford in Essex who came to LA to make films in the 1970s – inherited 'a strong sense of fairness’ from his mother. That fairness, together with the knowledge of how hard it is to make life work (Apted is twice divorced with children in Britain and America), is inclined to make the director generous with his subjects. He admits to cutting 'dramatic things that have happened to the participants’ children’ ('As a longitudinal documentarian you can’t afford to piss them off’) and pleads guilty to a little favouritism: 'I identify most with Nick because I know how hard it is to leave your roots and sow new ones: we both came to the US and went through divorces.’
For Nick, who tells me he has stuck with the project 'because it’s just 15 minutes of unreality every seven years and it’s important to see how the idea works out,’ the filming has acted as a kind of 'therapy’.
For Apted, the real thing was slightly less successful. 'The idea of going into therapy in England would be ludicrous to me but when my first marriage [to Joan Apted, with whom he had two boys, Paul and Jim] broke up, we did try it.’ He gives a humourless laugh. 'It’s a bit of a caricature: we Brits not being able to express our feelings. I’ve realised now that opening up and expressing your feelings is not an un-masculine thing to do: it’s a sign of strength, not weakness.’
Nobody ever questions whether men can 'have it all’, he muses; in his view, they can’t. 'When you’re building a career and you have a young family, it’s hard. With my second wife [Dana Stevens] and my third son, John, I was better – I made better judgments.’ He gives a wry smile. 'But I still didn’t do great. This is a very obsessive business and it comes down to the decisions you make in the end. Do I regret making anti-family choices with my first family and not spending enough time with the boys? Of course.’
Nevertheless, things have worked out. He is close to all three sons and makes frequent trips back to Britain. But although Apted’s love for his homeland runs deep ('I like to think that Amazing Grace, Enigma and The World Is Not Enough were in some way a love letter to England’) he says he will never move back.
Over the next seven years, mortality is likely to become an important issue in both Apted’s life and the lives of his subjects. So far – bar Lynn Johnson, who dealt with a mystery illness in 35 and 42 – these 14 children of 1964 have been lucky. Still, Bruce Balden feels it may be necessary to pull out before things get too 'grim’. 'Our lives are not over now by any means, but they’ve settled,’ he says. 'My worry if we carried on into old age is that it might become about who is left… Besides, although the films are important, I’d rather be remembered for being a teacher and a family man.’ Should one of the participants come to Apted with news of a fatal illness, he knows what he would do. 'The thought would be horrifying, of course, and they might say yes or no, but I would want definitely to talk to them.’
For Apted, this is a project that should be taken as far as it can go, and is one he will never willingly give up on. It is also, he says suddenly, surprising himself with the realisation, his proudest achievement. 'It’ll be the longest longitudinal study that’s ever been done and it will live for ever. Nobody else will ever do these films in the history of televisual entertainment: they’re completely unique. They even invited me to Harvard to talk to sociologists. And I thought they’d kill me because I know nothing – I’m not going to pretend that I know what I’m talking about.’ He laughs. 'The film is about the heroism in everyday life, which isn’t the stuff of Hollywood movies but is the stuff everybody has to go through. And if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that everybody has a story.’
'56 Up’ will be shown on ITV from May 14