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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Michael Apted -the TV trailblazer who gave up trying to play God

As he dies at 79, CHRISTOPHER STEVENS salutes director Michael Apted

by Christopher Stevens

There was Tony, the cheeky East End lad who dreamed of being a jockey. Little ballerina Suzy, the girl from a wealthy family.

Mixed-race Symon, who grew up in an orphanage and became a foster parent.

Neil, the would-be astronaut and restless soul who later dropped out of university and lived in a squat . . .

No doubt, as you read this, some of you can picture their faces now, just a few of the unforgettable characters we met as children in the ITV documentary series Seven Up! (later Up) and have followed throughout their lives — remember Lynn the librarian and am-dram actress Sue?

One of the girls, Suzy Lusk (pictured above in the series when she was a child) refused to take part in the latest instalment. Apted resorted to borrowing a phone and ringing her, ‘so she’d think it was someone else. Then I said it was me, and she put the phone down’

And we’d have known none of them without Michael Apted, the film-maker behind the series, who died last week aged 79.