Michael Apted on 56 Up

Features, Interviews, Film Festivals, FILM
The seasoned British filmmaker behind the indelible Up Series talks about the latest installment and his seven year itch.

Michael Apted has maintained a successful Hollywood career, helming such memorable films as Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorky Park, through to big budget studio movies like The World is Not Enough and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. His name, however, is synonymous with one television series. In 1963, ITV made a series on a group of seven-year-olds. Apted, then an intern at ITV, was a researcher. Seven years later, he went back to see what had happened to the kids (now 14). He has gone back every seven years since. And while the original show was done on the fly—and perhaps isn’t as reflective of English society as it should have been—the subsequent films in the Up Series have become an extremely fascinating and beloved snapshot of an ever-changing England, and a tribute to the extraordinariness of ‘ordinary’ folk. The New Zealand International Film Festival is screening the latest installation with the participants, now aged 56.

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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: How did you get into film?  Did you intend to go down this route when you got a job as a researcher?

MICHAEL APTED: I did. I had an epiphany when I was 16 years old. I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. I don’t know how I got to see it, but I did. I used to read a lot, I used to go to the theatre, but I’d never seen movies as a serious job. I used to go to the Saturday morning pictures largely to follow girls, but when I saw that film I could see that this could be something wonderful. I never thought I could do it, but it was very much in my mind. I did a lot of theatre at school and at college, and I got a break and went straight into Granada from college. It was a stroke of luck that Granada picked me and five other people to go on a six month course. It was a dream come true.

BG: Did you ever imagine when you were doing research for the first Up film that your life would become structured by this?

MA: No, the thing about it was it was only ever going to be a one-off film. It was a snapshot. Is English society changing? The Beatles are earning a million dollars a minute. Does that mean the whole social structure is going to be turned upside down? Why don’t we get some kids from different social backgrounds and see what they’ve got to say about their plans for the future and the world they live in and see what happens.

It happened very quickly. We had about three weeks to find the children and then to do it. It was put together and we were all somewhat gobsmacked by the response to it. I think we realised when we did it that it was good. But even so the penny didn’t drop to go on with it. It took five years before someone suggested, “why don’t we go back and see what happened.” It’s such an obvious thing to do. It never occurred to us. Now I kick myself and think why didn’t I do one in Northern Ireland, because by the time I did 21 Up—it was filmed in the late ’70s—we could have started another one. Things started again with 28 Up, when it went international, and you can see there’s a Russian one, and an American one, a South African one, but we were very slow on the uptake all the way through.

BG: So 28 Up was the turning point for you?

MA: For me it was an epiphany, my second epiphany. I didn’t want to bring it to America, because I didn’t think Americans would understand the context of it, and I didn’t want people to sit there blankly and think, “what the hell is all this about.” But when I put it in front of an American audience and they did respond to it, I realised it had much more universal resonance than a United Kingdom resonance, and was about much more than the English class system. It had moved on from that in a sense. It was about something much bigger and more important than that. It was a release for me, because I always thought I was doing something about the class system and trying to squeeze into that [idea] when the class system was already changing quite dramatically. When it found a marketplace and an audience in America, that was a big thing for me.

BG: Do you think it has managed to escape that original idea of looking at class in England? It’s still there.

MA: I think it goes very deep. I think class was very deep in that period and time. I think it’s different now. Education has changed. The whole tone of it has changed. I think class is more of a money thing, like it is in America. But ‘who your Dad was’ and all of that sort of stuff left strong marks on this generation, the generation born in 1956. If you were to start it again, it would be a different sort of story. I do think the shadow of the class system is a very long shadow, and I think clearly it’s over the films.

BG: And one of the characters remarks, as you just said yourself, that it’s much more about money these days.

MA: Yes, and some of them are even disputing the original class system, but I think that’s wrong too. You can see how predestined some of those lives have been, people who had a big support system and the chaos of the lives of those who were, as it were, underprivileged. It hasn’t enabled you in a sense to be able to predict their lives, but it has been a useful pointer; which way they would all go.

BG: Do you think the series has shown this huge shift in England? The first series is very localised, it’s England. Now it incorporates Australia, Portugal, Spain, the U.S., Bulgaria, for example. Is this the changing aspect in the way British people view themselves?

MA: I think it’s a social history of England through those people. In an innocent way. I deliberately chose it to be innocent about it, but it shows English society is changing. I don’t deal with politics and issues, but if issues come up in 56 Up, like disability allowances, or pensions, then it’s part of the film. I never objectify issues. The politics is always contained in their lives. Sometimes you deal with politics, sometimes you put it into a political context. In some ways it does give you more of a snapshot of England in each generation; what was important to those people at that time. When I did 35 Up, there were colossal strikes, industrial disputes, the country had ground to a halt. It never appeared in the film because it didn’t affect those 35-year-old people. But when you’re 56 Up and worried about your pensions, then economics is important and that becomes part of the snapshot. As you say with the travel, that is another colour to it, that you don’t necessarily talk about it, but it’s there. If they’re in Portugal, then you interview them in Portugal. That would have been unthinkable in some of the earlier films.

BG: Obviously one of the key returning characters, Peter [Davies], had his life affected by politics and his political views expressed in 28 Up.

MA: Absolutely.

BG: Do you think politics, despite not being upfront in the film, is still an important subtext?

MA: I think it is, but what always pleases me about it is the way all of the films are slightly different. It’s not just an update. Each film has a slightly different tone. You don’t try to make it a follow-up, [but instead] you say, “what’s going on in their lives, this generation.” You don’t guide them and ask them to talk about particular things, but [instead] encourage them to talk about what’s important to them, even if you think afterwards, “how the hell am I able to use this, how am I going to get it in, how am I going to fit it into the complicated structure?” I think it’s most successful when I get them talking about what they want to talk about.

Dramatically, the whole idea of interviewing Nick [Hitchon] and Suzy [Lusk] together [in 56 Up] was entirely their idea. I thought to myself, “oh god, this could wreck both of their stories,” but they were very firm about it. I’ve always said, it’s good when they own it, when they do what they want to do, then it’s about their lives. I think it paid off, but it frightened me to death.

Jackie, Lynn and Suzy, age seven.

BG: I’ve always been amazed by Suzy’s continual participation.

MA: [Laughs]. I think that’s the one reason why she did it this time. I put a lot of work in with her. I’ve nurtured her over the years. She has always told me she’s never going to do it again, but she has never understood how powerful she is throughout the films. I think this one was the first one she’s ever seen. Some of them are like that, they never watch it. She’s a very powerful presence in the film and she’s such a self-effacing woman, she’d never think that. I keep on saying to her, “a lot of people are going to be very disappointed if you aren’t in it, because you represent something very unique. There’s a compassion about you that’s very sympathetic and intriguing.” That’s very important in the film. It’s important to the audience. Somehow I think she’s come to understand it.

BG: Why do you think this has become such an English institution? Why has it had so much resonance?

MA: First of all, it was new. It was fresh, it pre-dated reality television. It was the voice of ordinary people. You just didn’t have that sort of stuff. There was a certain innocence about it. It was both funny and charming, and extremely sinister in what it was saying about the class system. It caught the audience immediately, and from then on they seemed to identify with the characters and go with them. It just got off to a rollicking good start. It was unique, and I don’t think you could ever do it again. The whole way the industry is formed nowadays—who’s going to sit down and say, “let’s commit for fifty years to this programme”?

It became iconic very early on, and I think it frightened me to death between 35 Up and 42 Up because I thought people would be bored, because they don’t change very much physically. Was it just their physical changes that kept people attached to the programme? It wasn’t. It was the emotional journey. I was always on tenterhooks that people would lose interest in it, but they never have. These characters have become engaging to them. I think that to me is breathtaking. I didn’t choose these people with any care. It was done very, very quickly. The thought of doing it now: we’d have focus groups and put them through tests. This was just fourteen people, which leads me to believe everybody has a story to tell.

BG: I don’t use this term in a pejorative sense, but it’s got soap opera conventions to it; there’s obviously a reason why soaps are so popular because there’s an everydayness to them.

MA: There’s an authenticity about it, even though you know it has to be cut to pieces. One thing about it, it has an element of truth of it—that feeling that this is something that people think about themselves.

BG: Some of the participants are very critical about the time limitations [e.g. you cannot show a real person in ten minutes per installment]. Obviously you have limited time. How much do you film?

MA: Usually it depends on how chatty they are and what they’ve been up to, but never less than two or three hours. I have a huge amount. I’ve got the issue or problem that I have to make the film comprehensible to someone who has never seen it before. When people talk about growing up, you’ve seen them growing up. There’s tremendous pressure to keep stuff in. I reckon I throw out at least 80% of the previous film. When I do 63 Up, I’ll throw out at least 80% of 56 Up. I don’t want the films to get any longer. You can only watch this stuff for a certain amount of time. It’s okay when it’s on TV in chapters, but I like the idea that people can see this in one sitting. I don’t think it can be anything more than two and a quarter hours, or it’ll drive you mad. I’ve always been under time pressure, but I suppose that’s not a bad thing.

BG: How important is your continued presence in this project? Can it continue without you there?

MA: It has always been a struggle to keep the participants involved. I feel now it’s still a bit tense. I don’t think someone coming in from outside will get some of the participants in it. Claire Lewis [producer] has been with me since 28 Up—she could do it when I’ve passed away, provided there’s enough of them on board to do it. I think I was crucial to it, at least up until now. My commitment to it, and the fact I would absolutely religiously come back from my American career to do it, was a measure of my respect for the series and my respect for the participants. I think that was a good encouragement for them to do it.

BG: You have had participants drop in and out. Did you ever wonder if the story had reached an end, that you’d reach a critical mass of people?

MA: I always had an unspoken rule that if enough of them dropped out then it wouldn’t be worth doing. When one drops out, and then two and three and four, it diminishes the whole point of it. That was one of the reasons I would give for giving it up. The other would be if it wasn’t popular and people didn’t want to watch it. Neither happened. I think the most I’ve lost in a generation is two, so it hasn’t been too stressful, though they like to put me through it.

BG: Do you understand their reticence to be involved?

MA: I do. I think it takes incredible courage for them to put themselves up for public examination. There’s a huge audience for it here in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and in your part of the world. It’s a big audience, to expose yourself to do that. I’m very sympathetic when they worry about it or they question it, but I do firmly believe in it. When I try and persuade them to do it, I’m doing it from the heart. I’m not just trying to talk them into it.

BG: It is fascinating to see their progression. My first reaction to John [Brisby], for example, is the typical Tory stereotype, and now in 56 Up, he’s very sympathetic and humanised.

MA: It’s interesting because he’s very uptight about it. As is Andrew [Brackfield]. They don’t say much. I say to them, you’re both very interesting and appealing men, and just let it hang out a bit. The more people say, the more appealing they become. Andrew is not that good at doing it and it shows, and John is getting better. I think they don’t do themselves any favours when they shut it down.

BG: The Bulgarian stuff, the difficult childhood for John—

MA: Yes, he comes out as a very decent guy, despite the voice, despite how you can place that voice and it makes you cringe a bit especially if you’re English. Underneath all of that, he’s a very good, decent man.

BG: One of the most intriguing characters is Neil [Hughes]. Do you ever worry that you’re taking advantage of his frailties?

MA: Yeah, I’m not shy about asking him leading questions. There was a period around 28 Up when we were nervous about it. We asked ourselves, “should we be putting him through this because clearly his medical condition was not as it should be and would we be doing damage?” We took opinions on it, but he’s always been willing to do it. He’s never hidden from it, and he’s always enjoyed it and he’s a terrific speaker. The doctor said, “if he wants to do it, let him do it. Don’t second guess him.” It’s an important thing for him, even though he doesn’t watch it. He knows its impact. So I don’t worry about it. This time he said to me, “I want to make a statement, I think you’ve got it all wrong,” and I agreed. Again, it’s the people talking about what they want to talk about and what they think is important. And not my idea of what’s important.

BG: How important was it getting Peter back? Is it difficult to bring someone back?

MA: It’s a vaguely amusing story. I’ve always got on well with him. When he left, I understood why he left. We were both big football fans, so I would always speak to him and he would decline. He married a woman who supported the same football team as I do, and there was a little bit of a bond. Then he wrote to me and asked if I could help him with the music business in America. This was 49 Up. I said, “yes I can, I can put you in the film, and launch you.” He said, “no no no, I can’t do that,” and that was the end of that. And then I asked him about 56 Up and he said, “no no no, but we’ve done a video and I’ll let you have the video and put it in.” And I said, “of course, but I can’t really put it in unless you’re with it in the film.” Then he wrote to me a couple of days later and said, “what if I relent?” That opened up a discussion and he did it, and it was thrilling for me to have him back.

BG: Do you still try with Charles [Furneaux, who left after 21 Up]?

MA: No, I behaved badly with him. I was so annoyed with him because he became a documentary filmmaker, and I thought that was beyond the pale. I behaved very badly, and I wrecked that. Claire goes to see him, but he’s pretty certain he doesn’t want to do it. I just didn’t handle that very well. I did handle Peter very well, fortunately.

BG: Do you worry about mishandling these everyday people, who aren’t ever trained or wanting the fame?

MA: I’m very conscious of it. It has been a big learning experience for me. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, very early on. Not consciously, but subconsciously, I would find myself projecting my own value systems onto them, success and failure and making money and having a job you like. I began to notice that that was what I was doing. I had it pointed out to me, and of course, it’s fatal. In some ways, it’s impossible not to project yourself onto other people, but it made me very aware of it. I’m very aware of behaving in an understanding and sensitive way. I make mistakes and do things wrong, but at least I’m thinking about it. At least I know when I’ve made a mistake.

BG: What’s next?

MA: I’ve been doing some television work here in America. I need to do a movie and I’ve got a couple of those hanging out there like big avocados, and I’m waiting for them to fall in my hand. It’s getting harder and harder in the climate there to make the films I want to make and to get the budgets I need.

BG: I suppose you’ve got six years to fill that gap.

MA: Sort of, but you don’t make much money making documentaries, my friend.

56 Up’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

MAIN IMAGE: Peter (centre) with his band in 56 Up.