April 7, 2021

Which Way 'Up'? After Michael Apted's Passing, The Series Participants Look Back

Neil Hughes, one of the participants in Michael Apted's 'The Up Series,' (Claire Lewis, prod.) Mich seen here in '35-Up.' Courtesy of Britbox

It was meant to be a few days of filming for a 1964 television program for Britain’s ITV that would look at who the future leaders of the year 2000 might be, taking as a premise the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” But for most of the group of British seven-year-olds identified to take part by their parents and teachers, the participation has turned into a lifelong commitment. Every seven years, a production crew, headed by director Michael Apted, would parachute into their lives for several days for a reflective check-in, before moving on again. More than 55 years later, the “children” in The Up Series are now in their mid-60s. Apted’s death in January seemingly brings to a halt the longest-running documentary series in history, one that has inspired millions of viewers around the world with moving stories of ordinary lives. So what’s to become of the project? And what was it like for the participants who have opened their lives to audiences around the world? Documentary interviewed six of the original 14 UP participants to find about what it was like working with Apted—and how they feel now about having participated. 

In speaking to them, it’s clear that Apted is regarded as a respected but flawed director. “The only way I can describe it is, It’s a bit like having an uncle that you are not quite sure whether you love or hate,” says Jackie Bassett. “You love him sometimes and hate him other times. But the overriding thing with Michael was he was totally honest with us; he never tried anything underhanded or betrayed us in a way that we weren’t comfortable with.” 

Bassett was one of three working-class girls featured in the project throughout its life. She’s always been outspoken and direct over the years—and has shared the ups and downs of her life, including raising her three sons and dealing with a chronic illness. 

In the 49-Up episode, where the two had a heated discussion over the questions that Michael had asked her over the course of the project, Bassett says that Apted recused himself from being involved in the edit of that section. “He said, ‘It’s not fair for me to edit that, Claire [Lewis, the producer]; it needs to go with Kim [Holden the editor of the program], and you two need to edit that.’ He didn’t want to influence it one way or the other. He had a great integrity about him.”

Bruce Balden, the lonely boarding-school pupil who went on to become a teacher and have a family late in life, also feels that Apted was discerning in how his team presented the interviews.  “Well, they were always very pleasant to me, so I can’t criticize,” says Balden. “I have kept things in reserve, things I’ve not talked about. A couple of times I’ve said something which I’ve regretted saying. I don’t have editorial control, but I’ve noticed that they’ve never put something like that in that was too raw or too close to the bone. I think they recognize that sometimes.”

Neil Hughes, who struggled on camera with his mental health into middle age, maintains that Apted was “a well-organized professional with some filmmaking craftsmanship.” He noted in written responses to our questions that he found that the feedback from the viewing public over the years was “generally good, but occasionally somewhat intrusive.”

For Nick Hitchon, the nuclear scientist who emigrated to America, Apted was singularly focused in his ambition to make good television. “The film was never trying to be kind to us,” Hitchon asserts. “I mean, what Michael did was basically make good TV. You could see the gears turning in his head. When he was asking you questions, there was a certain sort of a ‘gotcha’ about it. If you ever said something that would embarrass yourself to Michael, he didn't think, ‘Oh, I'm going to nail this person.’ He thought, ‘Ah, this is going to be great TV!’”

Claire Lewis, Apted’s producer since 28-Up, notes that Apted deliberately kept a distance at times in order to be objective. “It was important that he could come in fresh to the interview and ask them things that sometimes, when you know people very well, it’s harder to ask them, because you know they’ll be upset.”

Hitchon found the filming difficult every time it came around. “From my point of view there were a couple of aspects about it that were tough,” he says. “I mean, you're living your life, you're just being an ordinary person, and then these people descend on you for a couple of days out of seven years. I felt like I was plucked out of my ordinary life, and suddenly I was like a mini-celebrity. And then after two days they would literally say, ‘OK, thanks; see you next time, great seeing you,’ and they drop you off on the street corner and you'd look around and go, ‘Wow, what just happened?’”

Hitchon also resents the fact that for many years Apted insisted on portraying him as a rural boy. In 14-Up (originally titled 7 Plus Seven), he appears holding his head down, floppy hair hiding his face. “I was angry because they dressed me up in my Sunday-best clothes, and then they take me and put me in a field,” he recalls. “And they were literally shooing sheep behind me to get sheep in the shot! They were clearly trying to portray me in a particular way, which I found humiliating. And when we were 21 they could've filmed me at Oxford, but they filmed on the farm. Why did they do that? Was it because they were wicked? No. They already had a bunch of people at Oxford. And what was interesting and different about me was that I came from a farm, so it was better TV to have me on the farm.”

Nick Hitchon, from  '42-Up.'  Courtesy of First Run Features

Suzy Lusk, interviewed over Zoom with Hitchon, has been one of the most reluctant participants throughout the years. Her misgivings, she says, stem from the earliest days, when she was the only girl, apart from the trio of working-class girls interviewed together. “I always found it quite hard  because I always felt that as a girl, the three of them were always together,” she maintains. “They were always interviewed together and I was always the one on my own. I just felt a bit of an outsider and felt I was being slightly picked on.”

Lusk says that each time the filming happened, she felt unprepared. “We were never given any kind of warning of what the questions were going to be. We were just sort of thrown in on it. I do feel there are aspects of it where I feel very, very humiliated by these things that I've said in the past.”

In the original program she was asked what she thought of people of color. “I think I said I didn't know any because I spent a lot of time up in Scotland. And that remark has always haunted me, because it was just such a wrong question to ask, I think, of a seven-year-old.” 

Lusk continued to find the questions problematic, decades later. When in later years she was interviewed without her husband, Rupert, she says that viewers wrote in to ask if they’d been divorced, which was not the case. “But I didn't want to put Rupert through [the interview]. I felt he'd done enough, and I knew Michael would sit us down and ask us those kinds of banal, stupid questions, and I didn't want to go there.”

According to Bruce Balden, Apted’s interviewing approach evolved over the years. He says that in the middle documentaries, 28-Up and 35-Up, Apted would politely but determinedly ask, “Aren’t you getting on a bit?” and “You haven’t done very much.”

“He was looking for ambition in us and achievement,” says Balden, noting that this period corresponded with Apted’s own most ambitious phase, when he established himself in California as a Hollywood director.

In later years, Balden notes, Apted became more contemplative and empathetic in his questioning. “He became much softer and much more understanding and could somehow put himself in our position a little bit more...I think he could understand us.”

Everyone, including Apted, agrees that what started out as a look at the class system in Britain became something much more universal about the human condition. But a couple of the participants feel that Apted overlooked significant changes taking place in Britain over the decades.

Peter Davies, who was raised in a working-class background and went on to university, says that Apted missed out on what was then the beginnings of a fundamental shift in Britain‘s class structure: the emergence of a new lower-middle-class generation, which evolved from the working class. “Because in that post-war period, there was a welfare state that was a state education system into which money was poured. And people of my generation are the beneficiaries of it.” 

For Bassett, Apted’s failure to recognize the changing role of women quickly enough nearly led to her abandoning the project. “To be honest, I was really angry at 21, mainly because I think I could see that the world was changing. Michael didn’t seem to see that; he seemed to think we would remain the little women in the home. I don’t think he quite caught on to the fact that there was a feminist revolution going on.” She says that he continued to ask questions purely about having children and being married. “I didn’t want that; I wanted him to ask me questions about what was happening in the world, what did I think about this or that. I very nearly walked out on him; I actually swore at him and got up and walked away from the filming. And that is the closest I’ve come to walking out on the whole project.”

When Davies was a 28-year-old teacher, he spoke passionately against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s education policy. When the program aired he found himself at the center of a right-wing tabloid furor. The backlash drove him from the series for many years. After missing 35-Up, 42-Up and 49-Up, he reappeared in 56-Up. “The decision to come back was on a purely mercenary basis because I wanted to get some promotion for the band I played in and still do play in,” Davies admits. “And I made that clear to Michael from the outset and he was fine with that.” The tactic paid off for Davies, yielding increased CD sales and a record deal. He has no regrets about rejoining the project. “I knew in that sense what I was getting into. And being a good bit older, I was probably a lot better able to handle the fallout from it. So it has been fine.”

Peter Davies, from 56-Up. Courtesy of First run Features

Feeling more prepared for fallout, Davies says he did not in fact receive any negative attention after returning to the series. During a recent broadcast of the last two UP installments in the wake of Apted’s death, a friend got in touch to share screenshots of her 21-year-old daughter’s Tweets about the series. “One of them said, ‘I love that guy from Liverpool; he is so left-wing, he makes my heart burst!’”

For Neil Hughes, the impetus for his participation in recent years has been “cash.” Participants are paid modestly for their time—several days every seven years. “It’s enough for a holiday!” says producer Claire Lewis. 

Despite her mixed feelings, Suzy Lusk participated in every edition of the series, with the exception of the most recent one, 63-Up. While keeping in touch with participants usually fell to Lewis, Apted had wanted to be the one liaising with Lusk because of her long-term reluctance to continue. When Apted was first trying to secure Lusk’s participation in 63-Up, she had a number of life events getting in the way of agreeing to take part. “He rang me way back in the summer,” she says. “Then he came down here to see me, then he rang me again and I just said, ‘Michael, it's just really bad timing; ring me again in a month. And he never did. If he had rung me back, I would've done it.”

Lusk regrets not participating in 63-Up. “What I'm trying to work out in my own mind is whether I regret not doing it because it was 63-UP or whether I regret not doing it because it was the last one Michael will ever do.” 

Many of the interviewees for this article noted that Apted was showing signs of frailty in both body and memory during the last shoot. As Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote in The New York Times, (Lewis-Kraus tagged along for some of the 63-Up shoots—the first journalist ever to do so), Apted’s memory was failing him: “Apted was frail and prone to falls; he regularly misplaced his personal items; he could often enough recall the past with great detail, but sought frequent clarification of where he was supposed to go and why.”

“It was to a certain extent a little bit sad, the last one, because there were signs that he wasn’t in top form,” says Bruce Balden. “We were all in it together, helping each other. If a question didn’t make much sense, I’d say, ‘Do you mean to ask this?’”  

Apted knew that this would be his last edition of The Up Series, telling Lewis-Kraus, “I’m not going to be well enough to make another of these.” Although Apted for years said that the project would not carry on without him, in one of his final Q&As he acknowledged that it could. Claire Lewis recalls that a student at a Melbourne University session asked if the project would die with him. “He stared at her and then he turned and pointed to me, and he said, ‘Well, I suppose she could do it.’”

“But we’d always said every time we finished a film that we would only make another one if enough of our people wanted to do it,” Lewis says. “It wasn’t really about whether we wanted to do it. It was about whether or not our contributors wanted to do it.” 

And indeed, it seems the contributors are still up for continuing—as long as it is with the same faithful crew. Of course this is not a given, as the crew are also long in the tooth, at similar age or older than the participants. But it certainly seems that if enough of the cohort are around for 70-UP, there is a will for it to continue (see Sidebar). 

This willingness stems, in large part, from an understanding that, however reluctant their own participation might be, The UP Series represents a unique film project, and gives an insight into the human condition that has resonated around the world. 

“It has almost evolved into simply a film series about life, about living a life and growing older,” says Davies. “And I think that’s where people are responding to, increasingly.”

“It is a slight intrusion, but it has value in terms of interest, education and entertainment, even,” says Balden. 

For all the upset that the series brought to Nick Hitchon’s life every seven years, he has remained steadily loyal to it, participating in every edition, even during the latest one when he was being treated for lung cancer. He maintains that his commitment stems from his seeing the project for the experiment that it is. “I'm interested in ideas, and somebody had an idea about presenting the human condition in a slightly different way,” he says. “It became a time capsule. So it's important and it's interesting and that's what it means to me.”

Lusk agrees in the value of the project, and can see how it resonates with the audience: “People have said over the years that they've enjoyed watching it. They can see the value of doing this kind of reality right through the years. But everybody has said, ‘Thank God it wasn't my life being picked on!’”




BRUCE BALDEN: Well, I’d probably do it with Claire [Lewis, long-time producer] because she’s part of the old group, but I’m not sure. If, say, there’s only about half of us that are willing to do it, I’m not sure how meaningful it would be. It’s the contrast and comparing that is an important part of the documentary. I feel a loyalty towards it. I’m perfectly happy to carry on with it.

PETER DAVIES: I think I would, yes. I can’t say for certain how I would feel in three or four years, but as things stand, Yeah, I would do it.

SUZY LUSK: If they do go on and do 70-UP, I will do it because you just have to see it through. If they decide it's the right thing to do, I will do it. Whether or not I think it's the right thing to do doesn't matter, but I would carry it through. 

JACKIE BASSETT: Let’s see what you’ve got planned; I would look at it first. I wouldn’t dismiss it. Because George [Jesse Turner] the cameraman—I mean, he’s been retired for years and still comes and does the program—and Nick [Steer] the soundman] and Kim [Horton] the editor and Claire, they’re all part of the crew. So although the main ingredient went, I think we can make a pretty good cake out of what is left!

NICK HITCHON: You have to actually go and stand over the gravestone, because you should look at the whole process. If they stop now, that will be the most annoying thing they've ever done, from my point of view, because they would've just abandoned what I thought they were doing. That would be shocking and shameful if they stop now. I would be incensed if they did that. I think that would be incredibly irresponsible. It would make all the humiliation we've gone through over the years meaningless. They are supposed to be looking at the human condition. Whether they meant to or not, that's what they've been doing, and they better darn well follow through. I'm sorry, I didn't actually expect to go on a tirade like that, but I do feel strongly about that.

NEIL HUGHES: Too far off yet. And who would direct?

Carol Nahra is an American journalist, producer and programmer based in London. She is the UK consultant for Sheffield DocFest, a trainer for the Grierson DocLab and she teaches documentaries and digital media for Syracuse University’s London program.