His innovative documentary series has become one of the most acclaimed film productions of all time, but 63 Up director Michael Apted reminds us it was never meant to be.
Directed by the late Paul Almond and introducing 14 children from diverse backgrounds (then researcher Apted helped cast them), 1964’s Seven Up! was a standalone doco that laid bare the gulf between Britain’s socio-economic classes as it explored the motto, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’.
From East Ender Tony, who dreamt of being a jockey, to Andrew, who in rounded vowels plotted his life path with uncanny precision, the kids revealed their innate understanding of where they belonged and coloured in their futures accordingly.
“It was incredibly successful because it was a real punch in the eye to the class system,” Apted, 78, tells The New Daily from his Los Angeles home.
“It became very famous, part of the history of broadcasting … that was enough.”
Or so it seemed until five years later, when Apted was invited to direct a follow-up, 7 Plus Seven, revisiting the now teenagers.
“Immediately, I knew it was a good idea,” recalls Apted, who absorbed early “the notion of the unfairness of British society” from his left-wing mother.
“[I said] ‘I’ll be there. This is so important and I want to be a part of it forever’. And here I am.”
Every seven years, The Gorky Park and Gorillas in the Mist director delivered a documentary charting the participants’ lives.
“I always look forward to it, but always with reservations that I don’t mess it up,” says Apted, whose award-winning series has sparked versions in countries including the US, South Africa and Russia.
His three-part instalment, 63 Up (now screening on SBS) may be the most poignant yet, as its stars confront old age and mortality: From soon-to-be retiree Andrew, who regrets giving his best years to his law firm – “It would have been better to go to the school play” – to Nick, who has throat cancer.
“It was a terrible blow,” says Apted, of Nick’s diagnosis.
“It was family, you know. It is a family, and anything that happens to them, both good and bad, is very significant to me.”
As much as he “loves” his subjects, Apted keeps contact to a minimum between filming, “Otherwise I’d have a nervous breakdown,” he says.
“They’ll ring me up or write and say, ‘I’m coming to Los Angeles. Can we see you?’ I say yes, if they want to come and stay, they come and stay, but I’m not meeting them every year to see how they’re going.”
In a sense, audiences have also come to regard Apted’s cast as distant family members they don’t see often but still care deeply about.
Reminded of how Tony was once asked for his autograph while Buzz Aldrin sat in the back of his cab, Apted notes, “It’s in the culture.”
In hearts, too, with people filing away when they first encountered the series, much as they remember the moon landing, or where they were when Diana died.
I was first enchanted by 1998’s 42 Up as a newlywed in our stamp-sized Sydney flat.
The films “penetrate to the central mystery of life,” observed late film critic Roger Ebert. Says cast member Sue in 63 Up, “The things we go through are what everyone’s going through.”
Like Sue and co, Apted grapples with the big questions.
“I’d be lucky to do the next one. If I live, I’ll be 85,” he tells The New Daily.
“I just feel grateful to have got through this one, and it’s certainly as good as any of the other episodes, so people haven’t got bored of it. People seem to get even more interested in it as it ages.
“I think that’s one of my great professional dreams, to have done something like this which will stay on for a long time.”
Episode two of 63 Up screens on June 17 on SBS at 7.30pm