Interview: Michael Apted on '56 Up'

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Michael Apted’s 'Up' series reaches 56 and approaches its inevitable end, he tells Gabriel Tate

The gang toasting 21 back in 1977 The gang toasting 21 back in 1977

Television is too often dismissed as trivial, inconsequential and transient; the rise of reality TV and its ‘scripted’ offspring has done nothing to alter such perceptions. So there’s an irony that the series often a little frivolously deemed to have fathered the genre is none of these things. This week, Michael Apted’s ‘Up’ series returns for its eighth instalment, having interviewed the same 14 people every seven years since 1964 (when they were all seven) to test the Jesuit maxim: ‘Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.’

Its beginnings were unremarkable: a one-off examination of the British class system as a thrusting Labour government came to power and the decade began to swing. The children were, as director-producer Apted says, ‘more like symbols and representations at the start, from the margins of society: the unempowered of the East End and the wealthier in London’. Apted, a researcher on the series, took the helm for a 1970 follow-up that was as painful to make as it often is to watch.

‘Going back for “7 Plus Seven” was pretty grim stuff,’ he recalls. ‘These awkward, monosyllabic answers. ‘And “21 Up” created huge press interest. But the big thing was showing “28 Up” in America. I was very reluctant: how could they understand the English class system, private and public schools? But they did, and I realised it had a much wider resonance and that we should keep going at all costs.’

Even so, the class system is once again at the centre of the national conversation as the wealthy and well-connected protect their own. And the show itself has seemed to bear out the immutability of class: the upper-class kids are now comfortable and where they expected to be, more or less; the working-class ones found their options more limited. Apted has often said that he wished more girls and middle-class children had been chosen. In a sense – as the personal themes have overtaken the political – this has become less important; although one fears for the impact of government cuts on stoic children’s librarian Lynn, or of the financial crisis on ebullient expat cabbie Tony, who predicted such a meltdown in 2005. Even the most compelling character – bright-eyed dreamer-turned-haunted loner-turned-laconic local councillor Neil – only went and stood for the benighted Lib Dems in 2010.

The toll of ‘Up’ on the participants offers one of its most intriguing leitmotifs. While the series’ intentions have never been exploitative in the manner of, say, ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Towie’, ‘49 Up’ saw Apted taken to task for his approach and for the pain the show has caused them. ‘I can’t project my own vision of the world or preempt what they’re going to say, because that’s when I get into trouble,’ he concedes. ‘And some do give me a hard time and exercise a bit of revenge torture. But getting your life up for public examination every seven years must affect them. Even with Neil, we took advice on asking him to do it. He’s always been very interested to talk to me and I think it’s therapeutic for him.’

The ultimate proof must be that all but one of the original 14 have returned for ‘56 Up’ – including long-term refusenik Peter, a teacher who dropped out after his anti-Thatcherite views, aired in ‘28 Up’, reaped the tabloid whirlwind. And Apted’s approach has been nothing if not consistent, both tonally and aesthetically. ‘I fought for that,’ Apted says. ‘I’m a luddite. The changing faces over people’s lifetimes: that’s my ace in the hole.’ It’s also an astonishing achievement of editing: ‘56 Up’somehow compresses 14 life stories into less than three one-hour slots. But each new instalment throws new light on the last – and our own lives into sharp relief.

And here lies the irresistible emotional pull of the series: the lives of these familiar strangers hold universal truths. Who wasn’t gauche and awkward in their teens? Who in their thirties hasn’t faced turmoil in personal life or career? Who in their forties hasn’t experienced a certain levelling-off, a coming to terms with one’s accomplishments, disappointments and dreams?

The series is now nearer its end than its beginning, and Apted agrees that, during filming of ‘56 Up’, talk turned to ageing, retirement and even death. ‘There is a feeling of looking back now, which can be a positive or a little chilling. I live in fear of [one of them dying]. I’m not being melodramatic, but it’s become so intimate, like a family: some care for me, others don’t like me, some I see a bit of, others I never see. I probably identify most with [Yorkshire-born atomic engineer] Nick, who built a new life in America and remarried there like I did. But I hope I’m the first to go [Apted is 71], and that the series has a life beyond me. I don’t believe it lives and dies by me.’

The longer the ‘Up’ series goes on, the less likely it is to be matched. It’s unthinkable that a new project of such ambition and scope would be supported for so long on the shifting sands of today’s TV environment. ‘It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done,’ says Apted. More than that, it’s one of the crowning achievements of the medium. It’s simply unmissable.

‘56 Up’ starts on Monday May 14, 9pm, ITV1


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