Letter from Michael Apted,
I hope you enjoy the latest UP film. It’s a strange experience for me as its so linked to my own life – this ‘family member’ that shows up without warning and demands serious attention, and won’t take ‘NO. GO AWAY, I’M BUSY’ for – an answer. It knows, of course, that saying ‘go away’ is not an option for either of us. Fate brought us together and only death will part us.
The project was blessed from the beginning – Tim Hewat , an Australian current affairs producer of World In Action had the idea of a film about 7 year olds from different social backgrounds and how strongly it those backgrounds determined their futures. He gave the project to a distinguished Canadian drama director Paul Almond, who was on a freelance contract for a short, prestigious season of Canadian stage plays adapted for British TV and was about to go home. Paul liked the 7 year idea but hadn’t spent any time with documentaries. I was 22 had trained at Granada and had shown a great interest in documentary work, so they put us together for 6 months. It worked well and the film was a great success. 6 years later Denis Forman cornered me in the cafeteria at Granada and asked if I’d be interested in going back and filming the children at 14. YES SIR. The rest is history. Here I am eight films later and the children 63 years older.
The Up series is a series of documentary films that have followed the lives of 14 British children (since 1964, when they were seven years old. Thus far the documentary has been eight films and now introducing the ninth installment, spanning over 63 years.
The subjects are first seen on a group visit to London Zoo, where the narrator announces “We brought these 20 children together for the very first time.” The series, however, only follows the following 14: Bruce Balden, Jackie Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Susan Davis, Charles Furneaux, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Suzanne Lusk and Tony Walker.
In 2005, the anthology topped the list of The 50 Greatest Documentaries, and one is in Roger Ebert‘s ten greatest films of all time who praised the film as “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium”, which “penetrate to the central mystery of life.” The children were selected to represent the range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain at that time, with the explicit assumption that each child’s social class predetermines their future. Every seven years, the director, Michael Apted, films material from those of the 14 who choose to participate. The aim of the series is stated at the beginning of 7 Up as: “We brought these children together because we wanted a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.”
The first film in the series, Seven Up!, was directed by Paul Almond (26 April 1931 – 9 April 2015) and commissioned by Granada Television as a program in the World in Action series broadcast in 1964. From 7 Plus Seven onward the films have been directed by Michael Apted, who had been a researcher on Seven Up! and chose the original children with Gordon McDougall. The premise of the film was taken from the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”, which is based on a quotation by Francis Xavier.
The participants were chosen in an attempt to represent different social classes in Britain in the 1960s. Apted states in the commentary track of the 42 Up DVD that he was asked to find children at the extremes. Because the initial project was not originally intended to become an anthology, no long-term contract was signed with the participants. The interviews since Seven Up! have been voluntary, although the participants have been paid an unknown sum for their appearance in each film, as well as equal parts of any prize the film may win, says Apted. Each subject was filmed in about two days and the interview itself takes more than six hours.
A number of themes have appeared repeatedly over the course of the series. Questions about religion, family, class, happiness and psychological state dominate many of the interviews, as well as inquiries about the worries and concerns subjects have for their future. In addition, questions frequently take a personal tone, with Apted noting that viewers often respond to his questioning of Neil’s sanity or his perception of Tony’s success in life as being too personal, but that he has been able to do this because of the friendship he has developed with the subjects over the course of their lives.
Although it began as a political documentary, the anthology has become a film of human nature and existentialism. In the director’s commentary for 42 Up, Apted comments that he did not realize the series had changed tone from political to personal until 21 Up, when he showed the film to American friends who encouraged him to submit it (successfully) to American film festivals. Apted also comments that this realization was a relief to him and allowed the films to breathe a little more.