Skip to main content

Michael Apted and 42 Up

By Carol Nahra

Nick, 42, from '42 Up', wears a black jacket and leans on a rock.

It's Sunday afternoon at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, and the week-long events are drawing to a close. Usually, this is the time when sessions begin to thin out dramatically, as festival delegates hasten to beat a path home. But this year, a mid-afternoon session is packed with attendees. Why? Because it's a rare chance to see one of Britain's best known filmmakers, Michael Apted, talking about his seminal, longitudinal documentary series, 42 Up.

In 1964, Michael Apted was a twenty-two year old researcher working for Granada Television's World in Action series. The programs never shied from being overtly political, and Apted was asked to help select a group of children who would demonstrate that the English class system was alive and well. The program was a lively one, with fourteen seven year-olds, at extreme edges of the social system, speaking guilelessly about their views of the world.

Seven years later, Apted visited the now-teenage participants, to film how their lives were taking shape. He continued to return every seven years. The latest film, 42 Up, which aired recently on British television, shows Apted's subjects entering middle age, with many of them looking back upon their lives in a contemplative way. Like its precessors, 42 Up is powerful and moving in the simple way it al lows viewers to see the films' subjects age on the screen. The series has evolved into one of the Jackie most remarkable documentary projects in the history of the genre. At the Sheffield festival, Apted told participants of the challenges in making the series, and why it resonates so powerfully with viewers around the world.

The first of the films to air in the U.S. was 28 Up. Apted was originally reluctant to introduce it to Americans: "I was very loathe to do [it] because I thought, 'Here's a film based on the English class system which has as its reference a kind of esoteric knowledge of the English education system.' And I thought, 'How is an American audience going to understand any of this?' Nonetheless I did take it there, and it was extraordinarily successful, which made me in a sense re-evaluate the whole thing. I realized that what I thought I was doing in fact I wasn't doing. I wasn't making this kind of strident political film about the state of England, but in fact I'd been overtaken by events. What I was doing was this kind of more humane, humanitarian film about growing up, about all the things that we all have to go through: about commitment, success and failure, disappointment, promises and dreams and all that. It took me taking it to another culture to really figure out what it was all about."

The "cliff-hanger" of the 35 Up series was what would happen to Neil. As a precocious 7 year old with ambitious parents, Neil dreamed of being an astronaut. By 21 he had dropped out of university, and went on to live a sadly nomadic existence on the fringes of society. When Apted tracks him to his trailer in the far reaches of Scotland at the age of 35, he asks Neil what he'd like to be doing in seven years' time. Neil poignantly points out that there is a great Neil, in 35 Up deal of difference between what he'd like to be doing and what he's likely to be doing, and speculates that he'll likely be home—less and living in London. In 42 Up, Neil is indeed living in London, but seems to have fallen on his feet, having become a Liberal Democrat councilor for the London borough of Hackney. Neil was befriended by Bruce, the gentle teacher who also had a memorable seven years, having finally married and dispelled worldwide speculation that he would remain a lifelong bachelor. 42 Up shows Neil speaking at Bruce's wedding.

In 42 Up Apted asks his subjects the effect of the film on their lives, and their responses are decidedly varied. Perhaps the most telling is ick, the scientist who laughs at the question before responding, "My ambition as a scientist is to be more famous for doing science than for being in this film, but unfortunately it's not going to happen." While an upper class barrister calls the series a "poison pill" that comes along every seven years, others express gratitude for its providing a thorough document of their lives.

Given their mixed views, getting his subjects to agree to participate every seven years is one of Apted's greatest challenges: "I start getting anxiety attacks about 18 months before, and know that probably only at least two of them will welcome me, and the rest of them will have to be persuaded, bribed, black-mailed or whatever, and it 's very difficult! It is a colossal invasion of privacy for them. Not only do they have to put their life up for examination every seven years, for a British and a world audience, but they also have to live with all the things they said when they were kids. So I kind of resort almost to any efforts to get them back." His techniques are usually successful: eleven of the original participated in 42 Up. A notable exception is Charles Furneaux, one of the trio of upper class school boys who participated in the original film, and amazed viewers with their confidence of their place in life, and scorn of "poor people." Furneaux has dismissed the value of the project, and has not participated in the series since the age of 21. But it has undoubtedly influenced his life: he is now Channel 4's Commissioning Editor for Science Documentaries. Once Apted has secured, by hook or by crook, his subjects' participation, the filming itself takes place relatively quickly, spending about two days with each subject. He doesn't prepare them for interviews: "I've learned too often that you sit in cars with people and talk them through it and then all this wonderful stuff ends up on the automobile floor." Apted does, however, agree on the agenda of topics ahead of time. "If they don't want to talk about certain subjects, then we don't talk about them. I'm in a kind of odd position: I really can't let them down, I can't renege on my promises, or I'll never get them back again ."

Despite "taboo" subjects, Apted elicits surprisingly intimate details from his subjects, such as taxi-driver Tony's philandering, which he discusses in 42 Up. Apted says the candor is due in large part to the length of their relationship: "I've known them longer than I have my own children. And so I think there is a kind of intimacy, or shorthand between us which allows me to maybe push questions that maybe in another environment might appear to be kind of cruel or unkind. It's like a kind of gigantic family, which always sounds a bit nauseating when I say it but it's true. We do know an awful lot about each other, and I know their parents, and their kids, and they know me, and some I'm close to and some I'm not close to, some I see a lot of, and some I don 't see anything of."

After filming, the difficult part comes in the editing room, as Apted struggles with "generations" of film to cut. "It always startles me how different each film is. I have to throw out about 80-85% of what I shot the generation before, so each film has a very much different tone to it. At 21, there's a kind of arrogance of youth, of the world, that they can do pretty much anything they want. At 28, it was a very sympathetic tone, people have entered the barnacles of life, they've committed to relationships, to their jobs, there's a certain modesty. At 35, I was staitled by how much mortality had played a part in it. A lot of them had lost or were thinking about their parents dying, so death was very much a part of their life. At 42, they seemed more reflective, they seemed on the whole to deny middle age rather than embrace it; nonetheless you got the feeling that that they were at a watershed, that they were looking back on their life, that at least half of it was over, and they're all having to deal with teenage children and that is their own kind of nightmare for them."

After 35 years, it's not surprising that Apted feels a sense of ownership of the project, and is touchy when asked whether it will continue without him: "I always make sure I can do it, I can only not do it for ill health or whatever. I just feel more and more that it's a personal thing between me and them. Whether it would still continue if my part of the formula disappeared, I don 't know. I hope I don 't have to find out!"

CAROL NAHRA is an American journalist based in London. Her M.A. thesis in international journalism (City University; London) is a series of feature articles comparing the climates for television documentaries in Britain and the United States.