In 2005, Channel 4 invited the viewing public to vote on what they considered to be the greatest-ever achievement in documentary film-making. There were many heavyweight and well-supported contenders, including The World at War, Life on Earth and Touching the Void; but top of the pile was the Up series.
And it has the enduring love of the industry as well as that of the public. The influential American film critic Roger Ebert called it “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium”. Steven Spielberg is a committed fan.
It all began in 1964 with Seven Up!, a one-off edition of Granada Television’s World in Action, which was directed by a Canadian, Paul Almond, but shaped by a fresh-faced young researcher, a middle-class Cambridge graduate called Michael Apted.
“It was Paul’s film,” says Apted now, “but he was more interested in making a beautiful film about being seven, whereas I wanted to make a nasty piece of work about these kids who have it all, and these other kids who have nothing.”
Apted was able to indulge his social conscience by trawling the nation’s schools for 14 suitable subjects. Little did he know then that almost half a century later they would still loom large in his life. Apted was given the job of directing the follow-up series 7 Plus Seven and has continued to revisit the lives of those original seven-year-olds every seven years to see whether their social circumstances really were dictating the course of their lives.
He’s now reached 56 Up and, contrary to recent reports, has no plans to pull the plug. “I would never say this is the last one,” says Apted, who has also had a successful career making feature films, including the Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. “I always said I’d stop if too many of them pulled out, or if people lost interest, but neither has happened.
"Of course, I have to consider my own mortality (he is a spry 71-year-old), but would I hand it over to someone else? I sort of think that might not work out, as a lot of it is about their relationship with me. “I live in America and I’m seen as a Hollywood person, yet I keep coming back to do it, which I think to them is a touchstone of how important it is, or how important I think it is. I’m not just doing it as a job, it’s something I completely believe in.”
A pause. “But maybe I’m deluding myself. They might think, ‘Oh good, someone new. We’re fed up with grumpy old Michael.’”
Certainly, the relationship has had its ups and downs. Several of the original 14 have withdrawn from one or more of the films and one, Charles Furneaux, opted out completely after 21 Up. “He’s now a documentary film-maker himself [he was executive producer of Touching the Void], which I find particularly hard to swallow,” says Apted.
“He actually tried to get himself removed from the earlier films, too, but he’s integral to the famous ‘posh boys three’ shot [the prep school boys interviewed together in Seven Up!] and Granada told him to take a flying jump.
“In 56 Up we’ve got one back, who hasn’t been in it for a bit, so that’s a nice surprise. And everyone else came back. Funnily enough, the ones who need the most persuasion are those you’d least expect. The ones who are always there for me are those who, you might think, haven’t done all that well in the bigger picture.”
These include Neil Hughes, the Liverpudlian who was so captivatingly sweet at seven, yet went on to grapple with homelessness and mental health issues. “He always enjoys doing it but he’s never watched it,” says Apted.
He’s also tinkered with the format – bringing some of the contributors together to review their lives. “They were much more proactive about what they did and didn’t want to do,” he says. “As time has passed they’ve become much less interested in what I want them to do, and it’s better that way, because it’s them and not my version of them.”
The flaws in this remarkable series of films, as Apted sees it, have arisen when he’s tried to be too authorial. In 21 Up, convinced that lovable rascal Tony Walker (wannabe jockey turned taxi driver turned bit-part actor) was destined for a jail sentence, Apted took him round East End landmarks made notorious by the Kray twins, thinking those sequences would later seem prescient.
“He knew what was going on, but it didn’t work out like that and I felt a fool. I have spirited arguments with documentarians who say there’s a truth about documentary, but I say nonsense, every edit you make is a judgement call. Documentaries are no purer than movies. In fact they’re more dangerous because people think they’re pure.”
Despite that, he concedes that the Up project has influenced the way he makes feature films, and is happy that, more than any of his movies, it will probably prove to be his legacy.
“Oh yeah. Well pleased, because the fragmented state of the business all over the world will never allow anything like this to happen again. I came in at the right time, when Granada had a huge amount of vigour and vision. Every seven years, the money was there, no question.”
The essence of the project, however, is not what he once thought it was, and 28 Up was the watershed. He was living in America by then, and when his friends there asked to see the film, he felt certain that they wouldn’t understand its British nuances.
“But they did get it, which made me realise that everyone on the planet could relate in some way to these stories. It was a true epiphany. I realised that I was no longer making a political film about Britain’s social classes. It was more individually orientated than that. You know, I’ve never covered political events, but when I did 42 Up, Diana had died, and I did their response to it. Then I chucked that out because it was irrelevant. It wasn’t really about them.”
Asked whether he would describe as friends these people who are so familiar to him, Apted smiles. “It’s more than that,” he says. “It might make you throw up, but actually it’s more like a family. Some like me better than others, but if ever they come out to LA they come and stay, and if I have a film opening here, I like to have a screening for them to bring along friends and family, because that’s doing something for them without asking for anything back.
"Most of the time I’m in the position of a supplicant, wanting something from them: their time, their privacy. This relieves the guilty feeling that I’ve been using them.”
Nonetheless, they are paid for their contributions. “Yes, we started paying them at 28. I thought, ‘I’m paid to do it, why shouldn’t they be paid?’ And if ever we get money as an award, we give it to them.”
He, and they, also have the satisfaction of knowing that the project has spawned a mini industry.
“We’ve done a Russian one, and an American one. In America, for some reason, it hasn’t really worked out so well. But the Russian version has worked. With all the Baltic States pulling out of the Soviet Union, we thought, ‘Let’s do it geographically.’ So now we’re up to 28 and we have this document about the dissolution of an empire.”
In a sense he also, in the British original, has a document of himself. Does returning to it every seven years make him reflect on his own life? “Not as much as maybe it should,” he replies. “Sometimes I do muse on where I was at 28 or 35 or whatever. But more often I reflect on how it has coloured my whole career. I never tire of talking about it, and I bond with people over it, just as I bond with people who like football.”
Apted is a lifelong West Ham United fan. “Like football, it’s a common language. And while I’m not sure of its ultimate value, people keep responding to it. I’ve had a huge amount out of it, in terms of respect, and I know that whatever other drivel one serves up, one always has this.”
Michael Apted talks about each of the subjects of the Up films in the current issue of Radio Times dated 12-18 May 2012
56 Up starts tonight at 9:00pm on ITV1