Director Michael Apted on 56 Up

by Guy Somerset / 19 July, 2013
An interview with the film-maker behind the groundbreaking documentary series.

"Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man" was the founding idea of the landmark British television documentary film Seven Up! when it was made in 1964. Michael Apted - now a Hollywood movie-maker  (Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist, The World Is Not Enough, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) - was a researcher on the film and has revisited the children every seven years as director of Seven Plus Seven (1970), 21 (1977), 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998), 49 Up (2005) and last year 56 Up, which is now screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Seven Up! focused on 14 children from different walks of life, who each went on to appear in some or all of the subsequent films, making it the longest-running study of its kind. There were East End state school girls Sue, Lynn and Jackie (all films); East End state school boy Tony (all films); London children's home boys Paul (all films) and Symon (all films except 35); Liverpool state school boys Neil (all films) and Peter (not 35, 42, 49); Yorkshire village school boy Nick (all films); prep school boys John (not 28, 42), Andrew (all films) and Charles (not since 21), and (at a different prep school) Bruce (all films); private school girl Suzy (all films).

The films have screened all over the world and attracted a loyal following - as well as spin-offs in the US, Russia and South Africa.

Peter’s back, which we didn’t expect. Did you ever expect that? I never gave up on him. I never fell out with him. When he pulled out, I could understand why he pulled out. I was disappointed and I always kept in touch with him. I always asked him every seven years to do it and he would always say no. But we kept a dialogue going. His wife was a big football fan and supported the same team as I did and we would speak to each other periodically. So I kept the relationship with him. And then I think it was around 49 he rang me up and asked about the Los Angeles music scene because he was having this band. He said did I know anything about the scene and could I help him. And I said, “Well, of course I could help you. I could help you if you let me put you in 49 Up because that has quite a following here [in Los Angeles and the US] and that would help. He said, “Oh no, I can’t do that.” Anyway, it was amicable. When 56 came up, I spoke to him and wrote to him and said, “Would you consider doing it?” and he wrote back and said, “The band’s doing well and we’ve actually made a video for YouTube.” He said, “I tell you what, I would let you put the video on the programme.” I said, “That’s great but I can’t do that. I can’t have it on without you being on.” So he said, “Oh well, never mind, it was a thought.” And then about two days later – I’ll never forget this – he wrote back saying, “What if I relent?” And he asked me what would happen if he said he’d do it and what would I ask him and all that. He said, “Give me a couple of days to think it over.” And he did, and he did [relent].

But still no Charles. No, well, I fell out with him. I behaved poorly with him. I was very, very angry about him, because you know what his career is: he’s a documentary film-maker. And I could never accept that. I said, “My theory of life is if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.” I couldn’t come to terms with him asking people to do things he wasn’t prepared to do himself. So I’m afraid I was somewhat not even-tempered with him, which was my loss. I never had a relationship with him and I never contacted him.

At what point did you cease contact? I think 28 – as long ago as that, after he said he wouldn’t do it. He’d already embarked on his career then. My partner in [making the films], Claire Lewis, always speaks to him and she would meet him now and again but she could never persuade him to do it.

Presumably by 56, with that huge gap in between, there wouldn’t be huge value for you in continuing with him. Or would you have had him back for 56? I’d have had him back anytime. Peter did 28 and then he pulled out. Charles pulled out after 21, so he’d be a long time, but no, I think it would be fascinating to see him.

John in 35 talks about how he bitterly regretted his head teacher pushing him forward to be in Seven Up! Would you have wanted to be pushed forward for the films? Would you want one of your children to have been in them? Probably not. I don’t think I would have been asked, because I was almost a mute at that age, at seven. I never said anything, as far as I was told and can remember. When we were choosing them, we did want kids who could express themselves, who weren’t intimidated by adults or whatever. Who could say what they felt. And I don’t think I was that person at seven, so I don’t think it would have arisen. I’ve been tortured all through the years by the press saying, “Let’s have pictures of you at seven and 14, etc”, and I’ve always delivered them. Whatever [the participants] are asked to do, I feel I have to do.

How was the initial selection made? Journalism can be a very on-the-hoof game … It was. It was super hoof. There was only ever going to be one film. It never had this ambition to be anything more than that. And really it was just to get a snapshot of the English class system in 1964. So we tended to go to the extremes of class, that’s why it was somewhat loaded. I was doing the London research and went to the posh schools and the East End schools, and found schools that would co-operate and asked to meet their seven-year-olds, and then made some choices there, and three weeks later we were filming it. It was all done very hastily because we didn’t have much time to think about it and we were never thinking beyond that one film.

Were there any kids who were narrowly missed from the film or any footage that wasn’t included in the original screening? Yes, there were. We were inclined to go to groups: we went with the three girls and we went with the three boys. You can see in the original Seven Up! in one of the East End schools there were five of them: there were the three girls who stayed with it and there were two boys alongside them. I suspect in the first one there were probably nearer 20 kids in it, and then when we decided to go on with it, which took us an embarrassingly long time to figure out, I went to revisit them all and decided it was too many to do, so I cut it down to 14.

I’ve seen the DVD version of Seven Up! – I’m not old enough to have seen it when it went out. I’ve seen those two boys with the East End girls, but they don’t actually talk. Did they in the broadcast version? They weren’t in it very much. I’m sure we had a lot more material on them originally, but I can’t remember that far back. We did get in touch with one of them this time, who was very interested in taking part, but we decided not to, since we didn’t have any material of him other than Seven. We toyed with the idea of the ones that got away, as it were, the ones at seven we hadn’t used. I did bring back – although I never used it – at 42 Tony’s girlfriend, the one that was yelling at him in the classroom, and she was lovely, but I just didn’t have time for it. I have fairly strict barriers on time. I can’t make it go on forever and ever, so I took it out, but it was quite touching to see her. We hadn’t seen her since she was seven and she was now in her early 40s.

Would you do anything different now with the benefit of hindsight, if you were instigating a series like this? You spoke about going to class extremes: there’s a lack of a middle class in some ways in the films, and the gender balance is very skewed. There are major errors. There are not enough women, first. Second, the classes are on the two extremes and there’s not the middle class. If we were doing it and thinking about it and thinking it was a long-term project, as we did when we set up the American and the Russian and the South African ones, that would be a different matter. But we were only going to make one film and we were looking at one moment in British history, when the class system seemed to be maybe turned over by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and working-class kids were becoming millionaires overnight and all this kind of stuff. So we were looking at that moment in British history. We had no intent or plans to carry on with it. So I can’t beat myself up too much. Had we known we were doing the long term and made mistakes like the woman mistake, then that would have been a poor show. But as I say, I can’t beat myself up for something we never had any idea we were going to do.

You did the follow-up of 14. At that stage had you decided you would continue beyond that? As soon as we’d done 14 and we’d broadcast it and the response was terrific – although I don’t think the film was very good, because spotty teenagers don’t have a lot to say – I knew this was going to be a life’s work. I wanted to keep it going because no one had ever done this before and people seemed so surprised by it and what an original idea it was, so it was really a no-brainer to keep it going.

It’s interesting you say that about 14. Because watching them, it’s wonderful how at seven they’re all talking in such a lively fashion and to camera and by 14 even Tony, the most outgoing of them, is looking to the side or at his feet. You ask at various points during the series whether the participants see very much of themselves in the seven-year-olds. I have to say I don’t in some respects, but one thing that does seem apparent is there’s a lasting legacy of their upbringing at that point. Somebody like Paul, for instance – clearly that’s had a long effect on his life. I see more the personalities at seven surviving at 56 and not so much the legacy, not so much the bruises or whatever. I think the personality hasn’t changed very much. When you look at Tony at seven and look at Tony now, it’s basically the same person. And I think a bit of that with all of them.

The participants themselves would question my assumption I could know them at all in some respects. You have briefly in 21, and then much more significantly in 49 and now 56, them questioning what the films actually tell us about them and how they depict them. You’ve allowed that to come more and more on to the screen. What’s your thinking there? Well, I think that’s been their impetus. They’ve wanted to talk about it more. Maybe as they got older they got more reflective and wanted to examine what they were doing and question what they were doing. And of course between 42 and 49 there was the reality television revolution, and that kind of work I was doing was now, as it were, common currency. That was a big issue for them. “Are we just another cheap reality show or are we something different? And why aren’t we making tons of money being in it?” And all that kind of stuff. So it was very much full frontal in 49. Because it was so much a new and very successful part of the entertainment industry – reality television. But also as they got older they got more reflective and they would question me more and not let me get away with things, which I welcomed. I wanted them to question me and maybe criticise the stuff so it wasn’t just a one-way street and they could have their say. I don’t necessarily look for it, but if it’s there I don’t discourage it.

Are they right? Have you given a fair depiction of their lives and their personalities? That was my point really in 49 with Jackie. She had a go at me and philosophically she’s right. It is my choice, it is my opinion, and I only use a tiny percentage of the material they give me. So yes, she’s right. But then I ask her, “How did I get you wrong?” And she couldn’t really answer that. No one’s really walked out of it because I misrepresented them. No one’s actually said, “This isn’t me.” They complain a lot about what happened to that bit and what happened to this bit. Of course, they do have some power over me. If they want something to go in or something not to go in, I pretty much have to listen to them, because when you’re doing these kind of films you have to be on your best behaviour, because if you lie to them or mistreat them or whatever they won’t come back. They do have a certain amount of power in what they’re asked and what they think of their answers and what goes in and what doesn’t go in.

Do you think the films reveal things about you in terms of your questions? It often seems watching them that you place a great store in the questions on education, career and monetary success. You ask those questions but for a lot of your working-class participants those things don’t seem to be important values for them. I think I’ve spoken a lot about that. How one of the difficulties of making the films is I don’t project my own self on to them. I don’t expect them to have the same values and ambitions or fears as I have. I became aware I was doing that. I had my own definition of success and failure and ambition and I brought my children up in a certain way and all that, but so what? That maybe wasn’t what [participants in the films] wanted or what they thought was the way to do it. It’s a very difficult job to do these kinds of films, because in some ways you just have to wipe the slate clean. You start every time all over again and you can’t be judgmental, and I could see places where I was judgmental in the early films. It certainly didn’t do the films any good to be judgmental and it certainly didn’t do the tone of the films any good to be judgmental, so I’m very much aware of that. My values – if they don’t have them that doesn’t mean they’re less valuable than what I think. And that was a hard lesson to learn.

As a Hollywood director, you have the potential, I imagine, of living a life remote from the reality a lot of other people experience. Have these films kept you grounded in that respect? I’ve done a lot of documentary films, not just these, and I’ve always encouraged that in myself and warmed to it. I think it does keep me in touch. Or to look at it the other way, it gets me out of Hollywood. This is a rarefied atmosphere and we live in a rarefied way and we do strange jobs, and sometimes it’s easy to lose touch with the world. I find doing documentaries can keep me more rooted in the regular world regular people live in. It’s nice to get away from the pressure and strange realities of Hollywood.

To what extent do you keep in contact with participants in between films? Some more than others. It’s sort of like a family. Claire, who lives in England – I live here all the time –keeps in touch with them on a yearly basis. I’m very close with some. Bruce was out here and stayed with us here in California last year for a few days. He was doing a Californian trip and I said, “You’ve got and come and stay.” Nick’s been out here with his children to stay here and whatever. So some I’m very close with and others I don’t see apart from every seven years, really. There’s no kind of formula for it but we do keep a check on them and they’re all pretty good. They don’t run away or try to hide. We sort of know what’s going on with each other.

Keeping a track of the peripatetic Neil between 14 and 49 could have been a tricky exercise. Had you kept in contact with him? We did think we had lost him between 21 and 28. But because he’s on social security and collects it, the people who run it allowed us to put a message in when he picked up his money, to say here’s a number and would he ring me. And he did. But he’s always been game for it. We nearly lost him not because he didn’t want to do it but because that was the period he was pretty much on the road. He was homeless and all that sort of stuff, so it was difficult to track him down. But once he knew we were looking for him, he was there and ready. I think he enjoys doing it. It’s something he embraces. So he hasn’t been difficult. None of them really are difficult to follow. Some of them are difficult to persuade every time. That’s the toughest part of the job, really. That’s what I’m there for if nothing else, just to get as many of them showing up every generation.

And to what extent do they keep in contact with each other? Some of them do. Not as much as you think. There have been moments when relationships have been formed. Neil went to live with Bruce in London at 42, so that was a big issue. And then there was this whole business with Suzy and Nick [in 56]. It was their idea to do the interview together. I thought, “Oh my God, is this a good idea?” Anyway, they wanted to do it and they did it and it worked out well. They’d been keeping in touch. I don’t think they’d seen each other but they’d been emailing each other over the years. I think the three girls see each other occasionally. But I don’t think the three boys do. Tony sees a lot of people, too. Tony goes around to people’s houses. He had a holiday in Australia and stayed a bit of time with Paul there. So there is a bit of interplay between them. Not a lot but it does happen.

You’ve done some quite tough interviews with them over the years. I’m thinking of the one with Neil in 35. That must be hard to negotiate in terms of just how hard you make them address themselves. It’s awkward but I feel I do have to do it. If they’re very upset by it, then they only have to say and we won’t use it or do it. But I feel I do have to push them. I had an awkward moment in 56 with Tony about the racism thing. I felt I had to ask it. I thought he answered it very well but afterwards he was very upset and wanted to take it out. I said, “Well, look, have a look at it, look at it and let your family look at it.” And he decided [to leave it in]. They are difficult moments but I feel I should push it. If I go too far, they’ll tell me and so be it.

Do they see a complete final cut before the films go out on television? Some of them do, and some of them ask to see it and give me changes they want to make, which again, in my position, I have to pretty much do what they want. Some of them demand to see a rough cut and look at it and give me notes on it like they’re a studio. I may argue with them but at the end of the day if they don’t want it in it doesn’t go in. Some of them don’t want to see it, never even see it. I don’t believe Suzy has ever seen anything, for example. So it goes from the extremes of those who are very anal about it and want to keep a close watch on it and others who just watch it when it goes out and other who never ever see it at all. So you’ve got the whole spectrum there of people’s interest and involvement in it. But even if they don’t see it, I get a sense they take some pride in it, because it does do well and is well received and I think they all have a kind of sneaky respect for it.

You mentioned earlier about how you’ve evolved as an interviewer over the films. Have they become more astute about how the film-making process works and therefore more involved about how they’re presented? Yeah, they’re more savvy about it, for sure. But I think the big issue has been the diminishing age gap. I’m 15 years older than them and 15 years now means almost nothing, but 15 years when you’re 14 or 21 is a lifetime. I think as we’ve got older it’s got more intimate and more personal and more emotional. We’re more involved with each other and I think they’re prepared to be more revealing. Maybe I’m more emotional with them. That’s changed the style of the interviews a lot, changed the content of them. They’re quite stressful to do: we don’t spend a lot of time shooting, so I have to get through it pretty quickly, in a three-week or four-week period. But as I said, I think those years diminishing and because we’re more equal, more collegial, there isn’t a kind of emotional age gap between us anymore, that’s determined more the tone and quality of the interviews than any expertise or any savviness on their part.

There’s a cheeky bit of cutting to an earlier hare-coursing scene after John’s comment about class in 56. Do you think he’s wrong with his comments about class? I think he’s wrong. I think he’s wrong about the films. To say there weren’t class distinctions when we started is not right and I think those things are there. Obviously, I didn’t know certain things [in the earlier films]. I didn’t know about his father dying and all that. But I think he somewhat overreacts. He’s always been pretty angry about it and the reason I’ve got him to keep showing up is he does it for his charity in Bulgaria. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think he’d take part. So he’s always been pretty grumpy about it. Which is kind of sad because he’s so good and such an interesting and warm character. But he’s always really been very hostile towards it.

He more than perhaps most seems to have constrained you in terms of the areas you can go into. There’s nothing about his family in 56. He focuses very much on specific areas. There are certain things he doesn’t want to talk about and I have to respect that. They all have things they may not want me to touch and I do honour that. I might try to push it a little bit but generally if they say, “We don’t want to talk about this, we don’t want to talk about that”, I have to respect it, because I’ve got no interest in alienating because, again, I’m in for the long haul. Whenever the haul finishes. Who knows? But I don’t particularly want to alienate him. Him and Andrew, too – they’re both very restricting in what they want to talk about. And I say to Andrew that it shows. Andrew’s a very nice, interesting guy, but he just won’t talk about certain things, and I think it’s a bit of a shame, because he’d come over in a much more interesting way if he gave more, without having to reveal state secrets or anything he didn’t want to talk about. When they do clam up, it kind of shows and it sort of reflects their personality a bit.

Watching the whole lot in a week, you start to pick up on little details. I notice you sometimes switch in a slightly different shot for the archive scenes. Do you go through the old footage each time when you put the films together? When it’s something new, I sometimes go back. And now and again I use stuff I’ve never used before. Not often, but if something comes up in a new generation of films that seems interesting and I haven’t dealt with before, I will go back. We don’t have anything left of Seven and 14 other than what’s in the films. But from 21 on, we kept it all and over the years have digitised it, so it’s easy to refer to. I tend not to go back and look at the old films because I don’t want to make the same mistakes, I want to try to keep it fresh in my mind. I know the iconic remarks I’m going to have to follow up on. They’re rattling around in my brain all the time. But I try not to make the shooting of the film just an update. I want to see what life there is in them at this particular juncture and capture that, so each film won’t be the same. And I don’t think they are the same. I think they do have different tones to them and I think you can only do that if you really did try and start with a blank slate every time we sat down to shoot the next film.

It’s a good scene otherwise, too, but one can’t help but think the clip of Suzy with her dog eating a rabbit in the background from 14 is in there every time because of the dog eating the rabbit – it’s a great shot. Absolutely. It’s iconic. There are certain moments like that. And it’s hard, because I don’t have a huge amount of running time. I don’t want to make [the films] any longer because people can only take so much of that stuff. And then there’s a whole lot of new stuff. So it’s difficult and I sometimes have to remind myself these iconic things – her with the rabbit, or her with “I don’t want children” – are the moments people remember and I can’t take them out. I have to sacrifice stuff from more recent generations or new material to keep those in, because that’s the card I’ve got, that’s my ace in the hand, the fact that when these people talk about their lives and growing up, there they are, I have it on film, in a way no one else has ever had. So I have to really preserve those iconic bits because they are part of the fun of it and part of the recognition of it all.

You do use feature-film story-telling techniques in the films – teasing out plot surprises and so on … Exactly.

You would have been more surprised and more relieved than the rest of us about Suzy between 21 and 28. At 21, she looked like she was going bad places, and it was such a shock as a viewer at 28. I know, I know. I would say the reason I like doing both fiction and non-fiction is you learn from both. It helps me putting these Up films together, the experience I’ve had putting characters or narratives together in movies. Similarly the other way around. It teaches you doing documentaries to be a little quicker on your feet and to roll with the punches more rather than just make the shooting of a film a routine illustration of a script. You can be a bit more free and easy with it, as you have to be on a documentary, because you never know what you’re going to get. So you have to always be alert as to what avenues to follow and what to shut down and all this sort of thing. I think they’re two different disciplines but it’s interesting to keep both sets of muscles at work.

With Suzy between those two films, and obviously the various changes in Neil’s life, but also other characters too, is your heart in your mouth a little bit between one film and the next as to what you’re going to encounter? A little bit, yeah. I can’t remember with Suzy. I don’t think I saw much of her at all between 21 and 28 and I think it was a pretty big shock. But you do wonder. As I said, we keep in some sort of fair touch with them, so we know if anything big’s happening or whatever, but you do wonder. And that’s, I suppose, the fun of it, really, and that’s what keeps you going with it, to try to find those shifts in character, even if they’re only minute. That’s what the lifeblood of the series is about.

In our own lives, seven years can sometimes pass in the blink of an eye and not seem a huge length of time. But when you look at these films, not only can people’s lives change immensely in seven years, but they look so different, too. Seven years is a significant stretch, isn’t it? I used to worry about this. That once you lost the physical surprise of it then the thing would get boring. Between 14, 21 and 28, people change really radically, and those physical changes got less and less. But what happened is that audiences seemed able to track the emotional changes and that became clearly as intriguing as the physical changes.

Do you have a succession plan? You have spoken in the past about how you would hate for any of them to die before you. But do you have an idea of someone who could carry on the films after you? And would people take part in the films without you there? I think they would if Claire did it. She’s been with me since 28. And she’s very close to them as well. I think if I keel over and she’s still alive, I’m sure she’d still do it. But I don’t know if they’d do it for an outsider coming in. I suppose one of my hopes was that Charles would take it over if he’d stayed in the films. And I said that to him. I said, “You can direct your own episode. You can do your own thing.” But that still didn’t wash. I don’t think it would continue if some outsider came in. I hope I’m wrong, because I’d like it to keep going. But I’m sort of doubtful of that.

And would you stop before you keel over? How would you feel watching someone else’s film? If I lost my marbles, I’d happily step aside. But I only felt I’d shut it down if too many of them pulled out. Or if the audiences weren’t interested anymore. Mercifully, neither of those two things have happened.

 56 Up is at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland and Wellington.
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