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The Seven Year Itch: Michael Apted's Latest Installment in the Drama of Ordinary Life

By Carol Nahra

Every seven years, filmmaker Michael Apted re-embarks on a project that has spanned--and perhaps defined--his filmmaking career: The Up Series. What started in 1963 as a one-off examination of the British class system, through 14 young children, has evolved into a 42-year odyssey about the human experience, as lived by these 14 individuals. The latest installment, 49 Up, opens nationally on October 6, through First Run Features; the DVD will be released November 14.

IDA caught up with Apted at the 2005 Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, shortly after 49 Up aired on ITV in the UK.

IDA: You have been doing this project every seven years for the past 42 years; was there anything substantially different about it this time around?

Michael Apted: I think so, yeah. They're all different. It's interesting if you look at them in their entirety--and you can in America; they're in a box set--and each has a different feeling to it, a different tone. Every generation I chuck out 90 percent of what I shot the generation before. This is very emotional, much more emotional than any of the others. A lot of that has to do with people's awareness of being in the film, which then has a lot to do with the fact that reality television has crept up on us in the last seven years. In some ways maybe the Up films are sort of the grandfather of reality television, if you like. People have very mixed feelings about reality television, especially people in the documentary world, and I think it's affected the way that my contributors--the subjects of my films--have perceived their role in it and their place in it and their attitude towards it.

IDA: This time around you talk a lot with the contributors about what it has been like being filmed every seven years. Almost without exception they've moaned about it, but at the same time you have had probably more participation than you have had all along.

MA: I had more this time than any time since maybe 21 Up. I had 12 of the 14 originals back in for 49 Up. So it didn't seem to stop them from wanting to do it. It's always hard to get them to do it; you have to be very seductive about it and negotiate with them about what they want and what they don't want to do, and what sort of rights they want over it, and what sort of powers they want over it. They always like to torture me a little bit, but in the end they were prepared to do it--in one or two cases so they could sound off about doing it to me in the film. And because it was organic--I didn't set it up; they wanted to talk about it--I used a lot of it in the film.

IDA: Does it pain you that they complain about being involved in this program so much?

MA: Well, I think it's turned out to be quite interesting because it's something that we do that no one else does. The difference for me between what I do and reality television is that I don't contrive situations. These are people leading their lives and talking about their lives, so the fact that this is of significance to them was very interesting, although it was a bit hard on me. I got a bit of a pasting now and again, but I thought it was important to put it in because it was lively and it was something they want to talk about.

IDA: Does it surprise you that the series has such universal appeal, and it's been so popular in America?

MA : It doesn't surprise me now. It surprised me enormously when I first took it to America. People said, "What is this thing you go back to England to do? Bring it over; let's have a look at it." I sort of didn't want to because I thought you had to be English to understand it. I thought about the class system, the politics of the class system, and to get it you'd have to know what the class system was; you'd have to understand the language of the class system, the language of the education system. I didn't want a load of Americans looking at it and being mystified by it, because it's very precious to me, this film. Anyway, I showed it to them, and they did get it, and I had to re-appraise, "Why are they getting it? They can't understand what a public school is or what a private school is or what a comprehensive school is, so what is it that they're getting?" Then it occurred to me that it really wasn't about politics so much. It was about the human condition; it was about growing up and doing all the things that we all have to do--come to terms with life, with jobs and marriages and children and all this sort of stuff. Once I'd figured that out for myself, that I wasn't actually making this very English political documentary, then I could understand why it was popular.

IDA: Which contributor do you think changed the most by participating in the project?

MA: It's hard to say. Obviously the most vivid of them, probably, is Neil, people would say. In some way it seems to act almost as therapy for him, and as he's gotten older, you'll see in the last two films that he's much better adjusted than he seemed to be in earlier films. Whether that's got to do with being in the film, maybe that's making too big a claim. But his life seems to be a tremendous roller coaster.
What's interesting about the films is that it's the drama of the ordinary life. People's characters move half an inch, like in a wonderful novel. It's not the drama of melodrama, it's not the drama of fiction or TV or movies. It's the drama that we all live through. But I think Neil's life has been very dramatic by ordinary standards. It's interesting to figure out how it's affected him. I did deal with it in 42-Up, and I deal with it a bit now because it's clearly central to their lives, doing this film. It's two or three days for them every seven years, so it's not much of a labor of time, but I think it's very important for them, so it's interesting to hear what they have to say about the effect it's had on their lives--better from them than from me, anyway.

IDA: They actually seemed as a group much happier than the last time as a whole.

MA: That's always interested me because people, always come away with a different feeling--audiences do. I've heard people say to me that this one was depressing and that 42 Up was much more positive. People seem to have a wary resignation about it, but I think that what's so interesting about this is that because it's a drama of everyday life; people project themselves onto it. It's so accessible because they are incidents in it, people in it, thoughts in it, that must relate to everybody. Because it's so accessible, people have a very personal reaction to it.
The difficult thing I have to do, making the film, is not pre-judge it, to let it unfold in front of me. I truly don't know what the film is going to be about when I start it each time, and if I had an agenda, I would probably wreck the film. In a sense it would become a self-fulfilling film, and I would simply be making the film say what I thought it should say.
But it's very hard to do. You just kind of clear your mind out and look at the moment you're in with the people and the moment they're in with their lives and try to capture that, whether it makes sense from what's gone before or not. Just roll with what they want to talk about and what they're doing and then let the big picture take care of itself. Doing that allows each film to be slightly different.

IDA: If you were to choose the children yourself in the first edition 42 years ago, what would you do differently?

MA: I was part of the team that chose them; I was one of the two researchers who went out to find them. It's a crazy thing to think about because it's easy to be wise after the event. Obviously, there aren't enough women in it. From my point of view there's not enough of a middle class. We were too on the margins of society, too with the very rich and the very poor, because we were trying to make a political point about the English social system, so it would have been more interesting to have been in the middle ground more. That was perhaps even more dramatic than what's happened in the extremes of society. But you have to remember, it was only going to be one film; it was never this big idea to document people's lives. I can't beat myself up about it, that there aren't enough women, because unfortunately one of the lines in the film is, "Who's going to be running the country in the year 2000--the shop steward or the politician?" In 1963 it was unimaginable that women would have much political power, and it was only 16 years after that that we had a woman prime minister, so life moves very fast!

IDA: How many different film projects has it spawned?

MA: It's spawned a lot. I can't take credit for it. I suppose it's the first great example of longitudinal filmmaking--you follow people or incidents over the years. I don't think there'd been anything much before that, so I suppose it's spawned that, but I'm sure that would have happened even if the Up films had never existed. But it's nice to think that you did create a kind of style of documentary filmmaking. It's spawned copies all over the place. I've done other ones as well. We've done a South African one and an American one, a Russian one, a German one--I haven't done them all, but they're all out of the same pot. It's just the sort of thing that film does great--this going through the generations. This film is so full of detail--so much more detail than a book.

IDA: For the Up series, how much time does it take out of your schedule?

MA: Well, not that long. I started shooting it in April 2005 and delivered it at the beginning of September, so the shooting and the cutting was about five or six months, And I prepare it on and off for about six months, and I'm doing other things at the time. But exclusively, I suppose it's about five or six months of work.

IDA: You said a couple of contributors this time around might have participated because they wanted to sound off. Do you feel that you'll lose them next time? Because it seemed to me that a couple of them were perhaps doing their swan song.

MA: One of them was clearly doing a swan song; she said she wasn't going to do it again. But the interesting thing about it is we had this screening of the film; they all came in from wherever they were--from Australia, America. We did a big screening at BAFTA. It was very nerve-wracking for me; I had to sit in the room with them while they watched it. And they liked it, and not only did they like it, but they actually were very interested in how it did in the ratings and what the reviews were like. For the first time ever they seemed to be involved in the after-life of it all, so it leads me to believe that they're now beginning to see the value of it and see the importance of it within the documentary world and the world of television. So maybe for the first time, there was a sense of pride in doing it.

IDA: I don't know if you have a comment on the irony that Charles, last seen in 21-Up is a leader in the documentary industry here.

MA: Well, it's always been annoying to me. It's always sad to me when any of them don't do it because the film is weaker. But it's always odd to me that Charles is in the documentary business--more of an executive than a maker. He dropped out at 21, and I think he took quite a lot of peer pressure for not doing it, because you know if you live by the sword you have to be prepared to die by the sword. And he's clearly not.

IDA: You still try.

MA: I don't try with him. He's very hostile to us. But I do try with everybody--Peter, who fell out at 28--I have quite a good relationship with him. We talk a lot. But I have a relationship with everybody. Some people drop out over one generation, but I always live and hope that I can get them back. But I think Charles is too far gone.

IDA: Why is he so hostile?

MA: I honestly don't know. I haven't spoken to him for a long time. He doesn't want to talk about it. When I try to get hearsay from other people, he just doesn't want to do it. He's just not interested.

IDA: And will you continue to do it for the foreseeable future?

MA: I think so. This is quite a hard one to do; it's very stressful and emotional to do. More than I expected. But it seems to have gone down very well. It was very well received and did big numbers on television, and that's always encouraging. It always makes you want to do more. I'm sure I'll go over the stress of everything and buckle down in six years time and start thinking about it.

Carol Nahra is a journalist and documentary producer based in London.