December 11, 2012

Growing Up in Public: 'The UP Series' Continues

In 2014, the historic UP Series celebrates the 50th anniversary of the airing of the first installment, Seven Up!. Director Michael Apted was a researcher on that film, and has helmed seven installments since then, including the latest one, 56 UP, which premieres in theaters January 4 through First Run Features. This time around, Apted managed to woo 13 of the original 14 participants to sit once again before the cameras and talk about life at 56.

Documentary filmmakers know the relationship between director and subject can be delicate to maintain, not only during production, but after the film is cut, when the subject sees him or herself on screen and experiences the feedback of audiences. Apted has been navigating that relationship with his original subjects now for nearly 50 years.

Back in 1964, no one at Granada Television dreamed that the 14 seven-year-olds who were asked to imagine their future would become some of the most famous personalities in the history of British television—least of all, a young Michael Apted, then on his very first job in the field. According to Apted, the original 14 were chosen in an "incredibly arbitrary way. We barely met them before we chose them." They were selected from England's poorest and poshest schools, to represent the extreme ends of a class-based society.

Apted decided to direct a second installment seven years later—7 Plus 7—and managed to track down all 14 children. Since then, the filmmaker has checked in on nearly all of the original subjects every seven years, documenting not only their ideas about their respective futures, but also the actual path that each has taken-in the process, making documentary film history and a project Apted considers the most important of his career.

 "I don't think anybody will ever do it again," says Apted, pointing out that the life expectancy of Granada Television played a critical role in the longevity of the series by managing to stay in business for so many years. He notes that today's broadcasting industry is "so fragmented that nobody's going to sit down and make a 50-year commitment to a project," but Granada's staying on board for 30 years was "long enough to get this thing going so that no one would want to stop it."

Over the years, Apted could always count on Tony, the taxi driver; Bruce, the math teacher; and the three East End girls, Jackie, Lynn and Sue to participate. "It was in the upper echelons, the upper class system, that was most tricky," he admits, referring to "the three wisemen"—the three prep school friends Andrew Brackfield, on-and-off-again participant John Brisby and Charles Furneaux, who dropped out of the series after 21 UP. When he was in his 40s, he asked to be removed from every installment of the UP Series, but because he had given his permission so many years prior, his request was turned down. Apted describes Furneaux as the only subject he never made peace with. "We were both very angry about it, I think," says Apted. "He was angry with me and I was angry with him; I always felt, if you live by the sword you die by the sword," referring to Furneaux's career as a documentary filmmaker with BBC (with credits including Touching the Void). "That's the thing I could never wrap my mind around."

 

Andrew Brackfield, one of the original UP Series subjects, in Michael Apted's 56 UP, a First Run Features release.

 

With the remaining 13 subjects, however, Apted and his longtime producer, Claire Lewis, stayed in friendly contact via phone calls and e-mails, and the occasional special screening of an Apted blockbuster like his 1999 James Bond installment The World Is Not Enough. Apted even remained friendly with subjects like Peter, who stopped participating in the series after 28 UP, when his political comments drew extreme criticism from the general public. And now, 28 years later, Peter has returned and appears in 56 Up.

 

Peter Davies (center), who returned ot the UP Series after a 28-year absence.

 

Apted confesses that many of the subjects "like to torture me and keep me hanging around and waiting and changing their mind, but I'm too old for that now."  So for 56 UP, Apted decided to grease the wheels a little by offering a bump in the modest stipend the subjects had been paid over the last five installments. Apted went so far as to remove days from the shoot schedule to free up money from a production budget of around £700,000 to reach a sum he describes as "really quite a decent amount of money that would be hard for them to turn down."  Without being specific, Apted said the subjects received payments between $10,000 and $18,000.

Apted also always had an informal "final cut" on the table with his subjects. "I pretty much have to do what they say because otherwise then there's always the fear from my part that they won't come back," he explains. Respecting each subject's "line in the sand" is part of building the trust necessary to achieve the lifelong relationship he has had with these subjects. "You just got to have the trust between everybody—their trust that you won't take advantage of them, and they trust that you mean what you say. 

Apted says he removed only "one or two tiny pieces" from 56 UP, eventually even convincing London cabbie Tony and his family to let Apted keep Tony's comments about the influx of immigrants into London's East End, where Tony grew up. "We got some negative response from people in the East End community, saying ‘We're not a load of racists,' etc., etc.," says Apted. "But that was a tricky issue for us. I wanted to ask the question. I thought he answered it very well. I wanted to keep it in, and he was nervous about it. But we reassured him and he decided to let us keep it in."

 

Tony Walker, one of the original UP Series participants.

 

So after 50 years, does Apted think he just got lucky with those original 14 children plucked off the schoolyards of England? "Well, I do wonder that," he admits. But he feels that the success of the series and the enduring appeal of each of the subjects "leads me to believe that everybody has a story...I think it's a testimony to people, that people do have stories. And if you can persuade them to talk about these stories, then people are worth listening to. It isn't necessarily just the celebrities of life who have interesting things to say. It's sometimes people who lead quiet lives in terms of publicity who have a lot of interesting things to say."

The first seven installments of the UP Series are available as a DVD box set. But if are contemplating a modified marathon, be sure not to miss 42 UP, which includes a fact-filled Director's Commentary by Apted, with fascinating details about his interviewing techniques and how the subjects endured public praise and criticism over the years.

 

Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance writer and frequent transcriber of hundreds of hours of field footage for documentaries and reality TV shows.

 

Editor's Note: Charles Furneaux, one of the original participants in The UP Series, informed us that he had never filed a lawsuit to be removed from the first five episodes, as we originally stated in this article. We checked with Mr. Apted, and his staff confirmed that Mr. Furneaux had never actually filed a lawsuit, but that he had consulted a lawyer to explore the possibility of doing so.

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