Once More, Unto The Brits: ’63 Up’

The Hobbledehoy recently caught-up with the latest installment of Michael Apted’s “Up” series. Heartbreaking, yet life-affirming and brilliant throughout. Below, a review by Ella Taylor

Michael Apted’s latest installment of his extended documentary/social experiment — revisiting a brace of British children every seven years — finds them ruminating on life, death and Brexit.


By Ella Taylor

For better and worse, class pride has always run a deep vein through British society, upstairs and down. Not so the United States, where the mere mention of social class often triggers strenuous manifestos about meritocracy and equal opportunity. Which may be why attempts to reproduce Michael Apted’s long-running Up anthology — inquiring into the persistence of social hierarchy in post-World War II Britain — have so far failed this side of the Atlantic. For those who think Downton Abbey is pretty much a documentary, the Up series is the perfect antidote.

Beginning in 1964 with 7 Up, directed for British television by Paul Almond with Apted initially on board as a researcher, the series tracked a cross-section of 14 children from England’s famously rigid class system, with Apted checking in every seven years thereafter to document what and how they were doing. I’m roughly the same age and grew up lower middle class in London, so I’ve followed the series obsessively from soup to nuts. But you don’t have to have been as hooked as I on the anthology (now available as a boxed set) to find your way around the latest, 63 Up, which is studded with flashbacks to catch you up on how the group has fared since we first met them, mingling to frolic and brawl in a grim-looking adventure playground.

Inevitably a quiet tempo has settled on the hopes and dreams of these sexagenarians as they answer questions from Apted or go about their business with varying degrees of discomfort under cameras that have dogged them for decades. Some have retired; others contemplate their own mortality as they tell of parents passing away. One is seriously ill; another has died since 56 Up. Most seem content with what they have and express few regrets about what might have been. Luck, love, and loss, triumph and defeat, have beveled the edges of even the most pugnacious and intrepid.

Through every installment, Apted has peppered (some say, resentfully, pestered) the group with questions about whether England’s class divisions have grown more permeable. For some the short answer has become versions of “for the love of mike, Michael, quit asking, we are so much more than our station in life.” Apted deserves credit for including their protests.

The long answer to his probing is: It’s complicated. Take Tony, the charming, infuriating Cockney child of London’s East End, and the only Upper who frankly enjoys the limelight. As a teenager Tony predicted some of his future with astonishing accuracy, becoming first a jockey and then (“If I’m not good enough”) a cab-driver. Both jobs came to pass, but what Tony couldn’t dream of was that he would one day buy a handsome holiday home in Spain for his growing family and plan to build a resort there. What followed had more to do with the global economy than with his business chops, but today Tony, a proud husband, father, and grandfather who moonlights as a cabbie in TV crime shows, has switched his working-class-Tory affiliation for fear of Brexit, and may cast in his lot with the Green Party.

At the other end of the social spectrum we revisit John, at 7 and 14 a snobby, upper-crust brat and easily the least likable of the Up children. Now tweedy and balding, a considerable mellowed John (who also guessed right that he would become a barrister) is happily retiring to devoting himself to charity work in the Balkans with his wife. Our early assumptions about John’s wealth and blue blood turn out to be mistaken, though there’s no doubt that his pricey education has given him more financial security than most of the Uppers.

Certainly John hasn’t had to struggle like Symon, the group’s only mixed-race member, who grew up in a children’s home with his friend Paul. At 7 Symon wanted to be a movie star; at 21 he worked a sausage factory assembly line. Without functioning parents, Symon has had a checkered life. What he and Paul (now settled in Australia) have achieved with the support of two good women is by any measure remarkable, as is the fact that they’ve stayed friends. And after some difficult years as a divorced single parent, the congenitally cheerful Sue — one of three East End women who, at 21, gave Apted a brisk mouthful for asking them only family-oriented questions — heads a career counseling unit at London University.

And what of Neil, at 7 a bonny lad in a duffel coat skipping down a suburban Liverpool street and by any measure the most beloved of viewers? At 28 we saw him homeless and roaming the British countryside. All I will say is that after a lifetime battling his biology and a less than idyllic childhood, at 63 Neil is not without faith, friends or resources.

Every chapter of the Up series has seen its dropouts, and with the exception of Tony, those who remain express reservations with varying degrees of vehemence. For John, whose early arrogance so antagonized viewers, each new episode has brought “a little pill of poison.” Over time Apted’s questions have grown more personal, but he still queries them about whether they still believe Britain to be a class society. All agree that inequality persists, but they worry less for themselves than for their children, who face cuts to the country’s generous welfare state services, further concentration of wealth in the top tier, the decline of full-time jobs, and most of all the potential ravages of a looming Brexit deal.

Like Nick, the farm boy who became a professor in the United States, and Apted, who attended Cambridge University but now lives in America, I found far more career opportunities in the United States than I would have enjoyed in England despite a fancy education. Yet I’ve been struck by the nervousness that any discussion of social stratification inspires among students I’ve taught down the years in American universities. And I miss the stout class solidarity that, however diluted by upward mobility, remains strong among the English working class.

British cinema has always had a far more robust tradition than U.S. of narrative films about the relations between the classes. Documentary offers the same satisfactions of family drama, the common hurts and losses endured and surmounted in movies by Mike Leigh or Ken Loach or the classic post-War Angry Young Men films, while permitting no facile class stereotypes. No one in 63 Up sounds like anybody above or below the salt in Downton Abbey. We don’t see them gulping endless cups of industrial-strength tea or spending every waking hour down the pub or at the private club.

As Apted narrows his focus to the personal more than the overtly political, he has also learned from the Uppers that there is no such thing as an ordinary life; that money and education may carry you far, but that accent and income bracket have little to do with intelligence, wit, or goodness of heart. What’s striking is not just the sturdy durability of family and community, but (camera or no camera) the fundamental decency of just about every participant in this long cultural experiment. Rich or poor, all have ended up devoting themselves to helping others. So ‘bye for now, dear Uppers, and with luck and longevity, see you at 70 Up.

Source: Once More, Unto The Brits: ’63 Up’

One died, one is dying. The man behind ‘63 Up’ must cope as mortality begins to strike his subjects

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?

Source: Opinion | One died, one is dying. The man behind ‘63 Up’ must cope as mortality begins to strike his subjects

Michael Apted’s Flawed but Brilliant Epic of British Social Life

The Up series was meant to investigate inequities of British class. It also ended up telling a different story as well.

By Susan Pederson | November 2020

Michael Apted’s great Up series, about a cohort of English children, wasn’t conceived as a series at all. In 1963, fresh out of Cambridge and as a trainee at Granada TV, Apted was asked to find a group of talkative 7-year-olds for a 40-minute special about the children who would be Britain’s barristers and businessmen, factory workers and housewives, at the century’s turn. Directed by Paul Almond and screened in 1964, Seven Up! was to have been a one-off. But when someone at Granada suggested revisiting the children at 14 and again at 21, Apted jumped at the offer to direct. Even after his career took off and he moved to Hollywood, he made time to make a new installment every seven years.

With the release of 63 Up last year, the series spans nine films and six decades. It is Apted’s most important work and one of the most revelatory documentaries about social change ever made. It has attracted imitations, scholarly articles and comment, and hordes of passionate fans—though perhaps this is the case as much in spite of as because of Apted’s direction.

From the outset, he imagined the project as an indictment of class inequality. He wanted to make, as he put it, “a nasty piece of work about these kids who have it all, and these other kids who have nothing.” Drawn to children (mainly boys) at the sharp ends of the class divide, he recruited five of the 14 children from elite private schools and six from London’s working-class primary schools and care homes but only two from a middle-class Liverpool suburb and one from rural Yorkshire. In their interviews in Seven Up! these 7-year-olds unselfconsciously performed the hierarchies of class—theater all the more devastating for its actors’ innocence. Who can forget the now-canonical clip of Andrew Brackfield, Charles Furneaux, and John Brisby (the “three posh boys”) obligingly recounting their reading material (“I read the Financial Times”), their plans (“We think I’m going to Cambridge”), and their view that the public (that is, private) schools were a very good thing indeed, since otherwise, their schools would be “so nasty and crowded”?

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“63 Up” and the Child in All of Us

The series, nearing retirement age itself, prompts questions about how much time is left for its subjects, for its director, for all of us, and reminds us that we cannot know.

By Sarah Larsen | The New Yorker

The Jesuit maxim “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”—portentous, mysterious, mildly weird—is well known to fans of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries, which has followed the lives of a collection of British people since 1964. As a young researcher at Granada Television, in Manchester, a year out of university, Apted helped choose the children who became the subjects of the first film, “Seven Up!”; every seven years since, he’s given us the gift of an update. In “63 Up,” which opens in the U.S. this week, we begin to see the end. The subjects’ physical changes startle and fascinate us; watching aging in these films is like scanning the progressive class-year groups at a high-school reunion. At sixty-three, our friends aren’t elderly but are just beginning to look like senior citizens; they’re talking about retirement, grandchildren, how their lives have gone. But everyone’s personality—Apted’s included—is exactly the same. As each portrait begins, anticipation sets in as we await new details about an ordinary life.

The “Up” series is nearly spellbinding in its sense of accumulated meaning—a feeling that’s enhanced by its form. Over the years, Apted and his longtime editor, Kim Horton, have incorporated several clips again and again, and seeing and hearing them strengthens the films’ incantatory quality. Many lines from “Seven Up!” have become as familiar as song lyrics: “I wanna be a jockey when I grow up, yeah, I wanna be a jockey when I grow up!”; “I read the Financial Times”; “My heart’s desire is to see my daddy”; “I’m going to work at Woolworth’s”; “Stop that at once!”; and so on. The backbeat could come from the Monotones’ “What Would I Do,” to which our young innocents dance together at a party, balloons popping violently as the classes mingle. At this point, “Seven Up!,” black-and-white and bursting with energy, feels like a sacred artifact, beautiful and odd in detail, to which we return again and again to scrutinize against the passing of time. “63 Up” is the ninth in the series; Apted, who has also directed other acclaimed films, including “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Nell,” is seventy-eight. The question of how much time the series has left quietly permeates what could be the final entry.

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