Filmmaker Michael Apted: Leading Up to 63 UP

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Michael Apted helms both documentaries and narrative features, and has won numerous awards for both kinds of films. But he is best known for his career-defining Up Series, a unique documentary project that has been in progress since 1964.

In the Beginning

At the inception of the Up Series, Apted was working as a researcher at Granada TV, where he had entered a trainee program shortly after graduating from Cambridge University, where he had read Law and History.

The Up Series began with one film–a sociological study intended to forecast future British society by profiling fourteen seven-year old British boys and girls from widely diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and analyzing their aspirations and expectations. As researcher on that first film, entitled Seven, Apted was involved in selecting the participating youngsters.

Apted says that the one-shot documentary evolved into a career-defining series almost accidentally, when the producers decided to revisit their fourteen subjects every seven years in order to keep track of how their lives, aspirations and expectations were developing. Hence the series’ titles: 7 Plus Seven, 21 UP, 28 UP, 35 UP, 42 UP, 59 UP and, most recently, 63 UP.

From Slogan to Screen

The premise for the series comes from the well-known Jesuit slogan, “Give me a child until he’s seven, and I’ll give you the man.” But Apted, who has directed all but the first film in the series, suggests that another factor that has been equally formative in his subjects’ lives is the British class system, which is still largely in place.

UP to the Task

Apted claims pure luck landed him the directing assignment on the second film. “It was a time when fewer people were working in television, and I just happened to be the one available to do it,” he has said.

Audiences around the world have eagerly awaited each new chapter in the UP Series, and have watched with rapt attention as these familiar lives have played out before their eyes. Apted’s concern for and intimacy with his subjects puts him in a unique position to reflect changes in their outlook and circumstances. Each installment is like a long-awaited visit with old friends.

Catching UP With Old Friends

53 UP was released in 2012. It is a reunion, of sorts, because the several members of the original group who’d dropped out during previous episodes, or participated only intermittently, are back on screen. By now, they’re all approaching middle age, and their lives and lifestyles have been established. Through the years, the cast has been augmented by spouses and children, and other regulars who fill out the ‘kids’ individual stories.

In 63 UP, likely the series’ final episode, Apted refers to the entire project as an exploration of the British class system, and asks all participants whether they think the original premise for the series — “give me a child at the age of seven and I’ll show you the man” — is true. Their responses are varied, authentic and provocative. The film is full of emotion for participants who reflect on their upbringing and their current situations, including health issues, the death of relatives, and an overall evaluation of what they’re accomplished during the lives that have not turned out the way they expected.

The UP Series is available in its entirety on DVD, and may be purchased as individual episodes or in a boxed set of all. It is a brilliant, entirely authentic consideration of British society and sociopolitical developments in the U.K.

Truth in Fiction, Too

Apted, now in his late 70s, lives in Los Angeles and serves as President of the Directors Guild of America. Throughout his prolific career he has directed many narrative features, as well. Many of them, including the brilliant Amazing Grace (2006) about Lord William Wilberforce, a Nineteenth Century English peer who sought to abolish the slave trade, are truth-based dramas. He’s also directed a number of other outstanding documentaries in addition to the UP Series.

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