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Interview: Michael Apted's journey of a lifetime

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11 May 2012

It’s hard to believe Michael Apted’s ground breaking  Up documentary series, which began with 7 Up, is now into late middle age. 56 Up, which screens on ITV this month, sees Apted document the lives of a socially diverse group of people who were first filmed as seven year old children for a World in Action special that broadcast in 1964.

He has filmed them at regular seven year intervals ever since, and his Up series now constitutes a remarkable – and surely unique – portrait of entire lives caught on film. Inspired by then World in Action editor Tim Hewat’s interest in both the Jesuit saying: “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” and the rigid class system of 1960s Britain, 7 Up set out to discover whether or not the children’s lives were pre-determined by their background.

Apted has, since then, captured their changing attitudes and thinking at each stage of life, from the early hopes of their school days, through education, work, marriage, children and now grandchildren. But thankfully, says Apted, not until death – yet. All the participants, he says, are still alive and well.

Life, he acknowledges, has become tougher for almost the entire group than it was seven years ago. The economic downturn that began in 2007/8 has had “fairly radical effects on some.”

Their attitudes to life have changed too. “You get the feeling some people have got older and are ready to pack it in while others are ready to go out there hunting around. They are coming to an age when careers are beginning to shut down, and they are thinking of retiring – or not retiring because of their finances.“

The series is also a portrait of a country in flux. “England has changed, but not beyond belief,” says Apted. Class is not so important now, he believes. “The class system has reorganised itself so that the middle class are now the working class, and there’s an underclass who haven’t got jobs and are living on diminished benefits.”

Over time, he adds, the series has become less overtly political. “I think personalities took over around the age of 28, when the film became much more personalised and less political. I think it is still political but the politics is their lives, not opinions or statements about politics. They are living the politics.”

Apted now lives in Hollywood where he has carved out a successful film directing career on features such as Gorky Park and The World Is Not Enough. Between Up shoots he liaises with regular producer Claire Lewis to manage the process of keeping in touch with the participants and organising each production. Lewis has worked on the series since 28 Up. “She keeps in touch with them all and it is all very congenial,” he says.As each seven year cycle comes round, and filming time approaches, they begin “warming the thing up.”

“We start telling the people this is when we are going to do it and then start dealing with their issues, of whether they are or aren’t going to do it…and where they are in their lives. We keep a fairly close eye on what is going on without ever intruding. We don’t want it to become just them checking in every time and the film becoming an update.”

Apted knows many of the contributors well and several have visited him in the US. But he likes to save their full catch up until the very moment of filming. Neither will he tell them what he is going to ask. That, he thinks, keeps the programme feeling fresh and spontaneous.

The production process itself has become rather more straightforward over the years. The crews, he says, are much smaller and the kit less “elephantine”, which means the participants relax more and filming can be more intimate.  Apted says he tries to keep the filming simple and “to avoid being fashionable” in a way that might make the films age more quickly and become too readily identified with a certain period. It’s for this reason that there is no music in the series.

The contributors, of course, have changed over the years in the way they deal with Apted. He believes they have become more empowered and proactive in what they want to do and say. “I think that is all to do with the way that age diminishes the difference between us every seven years. They all have their crises and whatever, but in their demeanor they are more in control and that sort of shows in the programme.”

They are also savvier about the media business. Apted thinks the advent of reality TV means it is less of a mystery any more. “People know what goes on and in some ways how to play it.” Besides, he adds: “We have known each other for so long, that I know how far I can go with them and they know how far they will let me go…I know who is never going to tell me anything and those that can’t wait to cough it all up.”
56 Up is on ITV1 on May 14 at 9pm


CV
Born: Aylesbury, 1941
Education: History and Law, Cambridge
Career: Joined Granada TV in 1963 as a trainee. One of his first jobs was as a researcher on World in Action, where he made his mark with 7 Up which was directed by Paul Almond. Apted returned to direct the following episodes in the series, while carving out a successful career as a TV drama and then a prolific film director based in Hollywood. His credits include Gorillas in the Mist, Gorky Park, The World Is Not Enough, Amazing Grace and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He is a former president of the Directors Guild of America.


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