Every seven years the director Michael Apted has met up with the subjects of the 1964 television documentary Seven Up to record their progress in life. Recently the BBC screened the latest instalment 56 Up. Talking at Sheffield Doc/Fest this week Michael Apted ensured the audience that “as long as he’d be alive “there would be a new version of the series in 7 years time”.
The L.A.-based director Michael Apted, 71, yesterday spoke to an audience full of doc lovers in Sheffield about his work on the ground breaking documentary series Up. Apted, who says he has the mind of “a documentarian”, explains what he would do different this time and explains why the films are such a success, even abroad.
The idea, he says, to find 14 seven year olds and discuss their every day lives with them was clear from the start he says, however, “there was only supposed to ever be one film made.”
“When we had the selection of kids that we wanted, someone on the production team called out five names and made them step forward,” tells Apted. He says he was then told that it would be solely these five children that had a chance to succeed in life, based on their background and place in life. This little anecdote shows once more how much life has changed in the UK.
Another change is the fact that women are very underrepresented in the films. But, as Apted says, “these were just signs of the times. We didn’t have enough women in the film from the start, that’s not my fault but a reflection of Britain at the time. If I had to do it again now I would make sure to have a more varied group of people together, with more women, different sexual orientations and various ethnic backgrounds for example.”
He says that going back to his group of subjects the first time was rather hard, both teenagers and filmmaker had to find their role, and it turned out to be quite a “spotty affair”.
Does he prepare his questions beforehand or does he keep I touch with his subjects over the years? No, Apted says he goes in unprepared. “You only ever get one shot at it and you have to make sure you go in with a blank slate. “The other thing I have to be careful about is not making any predictions, I have been caught out before when they turned out to be completely untrue.”
7 Up, though a slice of the times in Britain, is also very popular abroad, perhaps in some countries even more so than in Britain itself. In Australia for example the films are screened in the cinemas and have good viewing figures. But what is the success behind it, why are people fascinated with the people in these films?
Apted: “I think we started screening it at the right time. The first three episodes never made it abroad. These were the times when it was still all about class, after 21 Up class seemed to be disappearing and the issues that we saw and discussed became much more universal. I don’t think it would have been a success if we had tried it too early. We have the great advantage of being able to go back in times, and that is unique.”
“Nowadays we have no idea what the general sentiment, the vibrations if you like, of the film will be until we have all the footage together I the edit suite,” Apted says. He describes how he thought that 56 Up would be a rather depressing affair, seeing as historically these have been rather turbulent years. But, he says, “when we put 56 Up together we found it surprisingly had this incredible optimism to it.”
The director, now 71 years old, also puts some nervous minds at rest as the question is eventually put to him at the end of his talk; will there be a next film in the Up series? “If I’m alive then yes, there will definitely be a 63 Up in 7 years time again.”