Michael Apted was 22 when he joined the crew of “Seven Up!,” a British made-for-television documentary that profiled 14 children from different class backgrounds. That made him 15 years senior to his subjects, with whom he maintained contact, establishing an almost familial connection that spanned more than half a century.
Apted did not direct the original 1964 documentary, as is commonly thought, nor was that initial installment such an important landmark in the field of nonfiction filmmaking. The breakthrough came in Apted’s decision to continue the project with an hour-long follow-up TV movie seven years later, “7 Plus Seven” — and again every seven years after that — revisiting as many of the children as would agree to participate as they grew up, found their ways in life, fell in love, married, divorced and so on.
As conceived, the “Up” series had a decidedly sociological bent, focusing on the British class system and to what degree it determined the course of those kids’ lives. In terms of such a study, the results were baked into the premise, which is to say that Apted essentially found what he was looking for. For example, John Brisby, arguably the most “successful” of the lot in his career as a barrister, was presented as a privileged, privately educated middle-class lad (whom one newspaper described as “the archetypal Tory squire”), though the films downplayed challenges he faced at home. Only one of the children was Black, and disproportionately few (just four) were girls, reflecting other biases inherent in the initial selection. One of these, Jackie Bassett, declined to participate for several installments because she felt that Apted’s questions toward the women were unfairly focused on romantic/domestic matters, whereas the boys were asked about their professional ambitions.
I mention this not as a strike against Apted so much as one of the many takeaways this incredible project has given us, having endured long enough to serve as a record of changing social norms. In recent years, a number of far more rigorous (that is to say, scientific) studies have been exposed as fraudulent or flawed, among them Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Millgram’s Shock Experiment, whereas Apted acknowledged the limitations in his own approach when Bassett returned for “56 Up” and “63 Up,” and has even credited it as a motivating factor in his choice of which studio films to direct.
Apted’s first big commercial hit was “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the lively Loretta Lynn biopic that earned Sissy Spacek an Oscar. He also made movies about mystery novelist Agatha Christie (“Agatha”) and primatologist Dian Fossey (“Gorillas in the Mist”), and followed up the jokey, juvenile James Bond outing “The World Is Not Enough” (a serviceable yet retrograde entry which I have previously described as “nothing if not a reversion to the franchise’s most adolescent tendencies”) with guilty-pleasure female-empowerment potboiler “Enough,” starring Jennifer Lopez as a woman who learns to defend herself in order to stand up to her abusive husband.
Apted, who alternated between film and television throughout his career, was well loved within the directorial community, serving as president of the Directors Guild of America from 2003 to 2009. And though his for-hire gigs helming the Bond movie and Narnia sequel “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” were by far the most profitable of his career, the “Up” series remains his most enduring legacy.
It is not, in fact, the only longitudinal documentary series, though it has inspired many other filmmakers — including Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and Richard Linklater with his own time-spanning “Boyhood” film — to invest years in their subjects. In the Czech Republic, director Helena Třeštíková has spent more than 40 years following 10 married couples via her “Marriage Stories” series (just one of several decades-spanning documentary projects where audiences benefit from a kind of fly-on-the-wall intimacy, versus Apted’s more format interview approach). Unlike Apted, who once said he hoped to continue the “Up” series until he was 99 — which would take him as far as “84 Up” — Třeštíková has arranged for her daughter to carry on her work when she dies.
Of the “kids” in the “Up” movies, only one died before the director, although another had a bad case of throat cancer at the time of the last installment. None had come out as gay, although Apted’s questions didn’t pry into that realm — indeed, there’s only so much you can cover, especially when navigating a certain respect for privacy (these participants began as children, after all, and their consent became more clear in later years). The final film, “63 Up,” released last year, was seriously concerned with Brexit, which Apted (rightly) assumed might provoke different opinions among the range of classes represented.
What struck me as most fascinating about the series when I first watched one of Apted’s septennial installments (I believe it was “42 Up,” released in 1998) was surely among the least anticipated aspects: The project made these children famous, and that public attention became a factor in their own development. Today, in a world shaped by reality TV, this may seem obvious. After all, many fame-seekers vie to be contestants on various shows with the express intention of leveraging the exposure for their own career goals. But in the case of the “Up” series, celebrity became a kind of burden. Several of the subjects declined to participate in subsequent installments, whereas others endured the intrusion for a calculated benefit (Peter Davies had a band to promote, and Brisby used the spotlight to boost various charity organizations).
Of course, the project also made Apted famous, and no matter what else the director did in his career — and his credits are far too varied to wedge into a reductive pigeonhole — he was always the man responsible for the “Up” series. But there are common elements between all these projects, whether film or TV, fiction or non: From recovered-sight thriller “Blink” to wild-child drama “Nell,” Apted approached his Hollywood assignments as he did the real-life individuals with whom he’d become friends over the years, with curiosity and respect, including just enough of himself, while letting the characters tell their own stories.