Michael Apted’s Project of a Lifetime

Michael Apted

The eclectic filmography of Michael Apted, who passed away last week at the age of seventy-nine, stretches from The Triple Echo with Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson in 1972 to Unlocked with Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, Michael Douglas, John Malkovich, and Toni Collette in 2017. In 1966 and ’67, the heyday of Coronation Street, the world’s longest-running soap opera—it’s still on—Apted directed eight episodes and carried on working in television through the 2010s, directing episodes of Masters of Sex, Ray Donovan, and Bloodline. “I’m a magpie rather than a visionary,” he once said. “I tend not to make personal films, which allows me to have an enormous variety in my work.”

Throughout his life, though, Apted was always fully aware that the one project he would be remembered for would be the Up series of nine films, one made every seven years, tracking the lives of fourteen British men and women from 1964, when they were seven years old, to 2019, as they turned sixty-three. Apted was twenty-two when he was hired to help select children who would be the subjects of the group portrait. He’d grown up in a working-class neighborhood in east London, landed a scholarship, and studied history and law at Cambridge, where he threw himself into the world of theater, working and playing alongside John Cleese, Trevor Nunn, Mike Newell, and Stephen Frears.

Apted knew where he was going. When he was fifteen, he saw Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), an experience he would later describe as “a total epiphany.” He’d always been something of a bookworm, but in Wild Strawberries, he discovered “something, a movie, that I thought had the gravitas and seriousness of a book . . . and from then on I knew what I wanted to do.” After graduating, he entered the trainee program at Granada Television, a new independent broadcaster with an investigative current affairs program called World in Action. The show was overseen by an Australian, Tim Hewat, who was determined to demonstrate that Britain’s centuries-old class system was still determining the fates of its citizens.

Among the children selected for Seven Up! were Andrew, who claimed to regularly read the Financial Times and was already planning to study at Cambridge, and Paul, who, plucked from a charity-based boarding school, had to ask on camera, “What does university mean?” Seven Up! was directed by Paul Almond, who “was more interested in making a beautiful film about being seven,” Apted once recalled, “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’s greatest regret was a decision that would have an impact for decades, not only on the series but on his career outside of it as well. Only four of the fourteen kids were girls. Apted would eventually go on to direct Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) with Sissy Spacek as country music legend Loretta Lynn. Spacek has been nominated for a best actress Oscar six times, and this is the performance that clinched her single win. Apted also directed Vanessa Redgrave in Agatha (1979), a thriller about what mystery writer Agatha Christie might have been up to when she disappeared for eleven days in 1926; Sigourney Weaver in the Dian Fossey biopic Gorillas in the Mist (1988); and Jodie Foster in Nell (1994), the story of a young woman who has grown up far and away from civilization. All of these films, Apted once pointed out, address “women’s role in society and what women have to do to have a role in society, or the choices women have to make to stay in society or have a voice in society, in both straightforward and eccentric ways. That’s always interested me. And that, I think, stems from the feeling that I slightly missed out.”

When Seven Up! first aired on May 5, 1964, it “landed like a grenade,” wrote Gideon Lewis-Kraus in an in-depth piece on Apted and the Up series for the New York Times Magazine in late 2019. “That first one,” Apted told Lewis-Kraus, “was extremely successful. It was the truth of the class system out of the mouths of babes, and the whole country was shocked—people were just gobsmacked by the rifts in English society on celluloid.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw writes that the series would have “an incalculable effect on British social realist cinema from the early 1960s to the present day—as well as the thinking of the British progressive left—as it asked us to ruminate on the inescapability or otherwise of class, and what narratives were possible for working people.”

Apted took over as director with 7 Plus Seven (1970) and stayed on through 21 Up (1977), 28 Up (1984), and so on, through to 63 Up (2019). Reviewing 42 Up (1998) for the Observer, Andrew Sarris called it “clearly the most remarkable nonfiction film project in the history of the medium and officially the most temporally ambitious.” For Andrew Anthony, who profiled Apted for the Guardian in 2012, it wasn’t “what anyone says at any particular time that marks the program out as special or unique; it’s how the interplay between their words and actions takes on a larger meaning when placed against the accumulated knowledge of their lives. They don’t always tell the truth about their feelings, but then who does? Yet you sense the doubts and regrets as you sense your own: gradually.”

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