By Peter Howell | Originally published December 2019
Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries has always held more than just professional interest to me.
I’m the same age as the participants — we’re all 63 now, hence the arrival (Friday, at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema) of “63 Up,” the ninth chapter of this once-every-seven-years project. From an early age, I’ve compared my own life to my British counterparts.
As I’ve marked momentous occasions of schooling, work, marriage and child-rearing, I’ve wondered how the “Up” gang are faring. I’ve felt closest to Peter Davies, with whom I share more than a first name: we both wanted to be astronauts and we both are passionate about music.
“Really? Oh my God!” says Apted, 78, on the line from New York, when I mention my chronological connection to his series.
“So you’ve got a really good background with this.”
I note that at age 63, people can no longer call themselves middle-aged, as much as they might wish it. Already a qualifier for many seniors’ discounts, I’m not going to live to be 126.
Apted jokes that he’s obliged to stick around for a few more years: “I’m under contract to be 100 years old before they’ll pay me anything!”
It’s very much on Apted’s mind that the clock is ticking furiously away. He’s now seen the first of his original 14 “Up” participants die: children’s librarian Lynn Johnson passed away after a brief illness in 2013, a year after the release of “56 Up.”
“That was horrible,” Apted says. “She was a lovely woman. She was very bright and she had a rough life. She was one of our favourites because she was really straightforward and honest.”
Now “63 Up” arrives with the grim news that engineering professor Nick Hitchon, who relocated to the U.S. decades ago, has developed throat cancer and isn’t likely to see the end of 2020, let alone make it to “70 Up” in 2026. Yet Nick surprised everybody by appearing in “63 Up.”
“He was the last interview we did and we were told he’d probably be dead in a few days or weeks,” Apted says.
“He was amazing. He said we could only do 10 minutes at a time and I deliberately didn’t see him until we had the camera there and rolling. He was very, very calm and very, very cool about it all. He then did an interview that lasted an hour and a half. I was gobsmacked by it. He really turned it on. He and I were really close. He was a real tower of strength for all of this, never letting me down.”
Losing Lynn was bad enough, since she was one of only four female participants in the “Up” series. Apted has always said he regrets the lack of gender equity in the program, which began as a British TV social experiment called “Seven Up!” for which he worked as a researcher. (He’s been the director for all subsequent instalments.)
Then Apted learned that Suzy Lusk, one of the “Up” participants chosen to represent the upper class, was refusing to do “63 Up.” She’d tried to leave before, but always changed her mind at the last minute.
“I did lose Suzy, who is a joy but also a pain in the ass, most of the time. She just gets very nervous about these things … And she’s very good at it, that’s what’s annoying. If she was a bad interview or annoying, that would be one thing. But she always delivers. It was heartbreaking when she said she wouldn’t do it. I had to resort to ringing her on someone else’s phone so she’d pick up the phone and think it was someone else. Then I said it was me and she put the phone down!”
Suzy was the second to leave the series, third if you count Peter, who sat out the chapters between his late 30s and his 40s, returning for “56 Up” mainly so he could promote his band. The first to go was Charles Furneaux, another of the “toffs,” who quit after “21 Up” in 1977 to work for the BBC and make documentaries, oddly enough.
“That was a bit of a shock,” Apted recalls. “We had no idea he was going to leave. He was pretty tough about it, which is a pity. It’s very sad when someone goes. We always lose something.”
Apted has always had to use a little persuasion to gather his subjects together every seven years, a task that’s gotten easier as they’ve grown into adulthood and gotten to know and trust him.
“I’ve known them forever. I don’t think I can read them all 100 per cent, but I haven’t really got it wrong, if you know what I mean. If they say they aren’t going to do it, and I say, ‘In my heart, yes, you are going to do it,’ then they usually do it.”
Apted admits he was completely wrong about Tony Walker, a Cockney kid who came from a poorer part of London. Tony aspired to be a jockey, but ended up being a cabbie and occasional actor, and he’s had many family and financial difficulties. But he’s still married to wife Debbie, and they’re happily living in the English countryside.
“Like we all do, with Tony we all laugh with him — and laugh at him — but he’s got a good heart,” Apted says. “He’s got a much better heart than I thought he was going to have. I really did think he’d end up in prison. He came through and it’s amazing, really. He’s a really smart guy and made a lot of good decisions in his life. It hasn’t been a easy life for him, as you know.”
Apted keeps a polite distance between his participants until the six-month period of filming, a time span they refer to as “in period.” This is to avoid the “mayhem” of potentially gathering too much information that can’t be put into a single film.
Apted’s subjects will all be 70 when the next “Up” film comes out in 2026, and so (gulp) will I. That would be the tenth film in the series, spanning from “Seven Up!” to “70 Up,” and it occurs to me that it might be the ideal place to stop the project.
But Apted isn’t thinking along these lines.
“You may be right, but I don’t think that. Supposing three or four or more of them die, if I was still alive, I might do a short one of people who are alive and just do a quick recap of the people who passed away. That’s as far as I’ve gotten with thinking about it … I never thought we’d get to 63, so I just have to keep an open mind. If I make a plan, five of them will drop dead or something immediately!”
Apted and I resolve to talk again in seven years, when I’m 70 and he’s 85. How’s that for positive thinking?