Interview: Paul Almond on Starting the ‘Up’ Series and Watching It Grow for Half a Century


This interview was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on January 10, 2013.

Almost 50 years ago, Canadian filmmaker Paul Almond, while employed by Granada Television in the UK, interviewed a bunch of young children for an episode of World in Action. The one-off special, titled Seven Up!, wound up spawning a very popular series of documentaries revisiting the subjects every seven years. The latest installment, 56 Up, opened last Friday in the U.S. And while Almond only directed the original program, he deserves a great deal of credit for providing the start of what’s become a monumental work of nonfiction cinema. Sadly, he’s rarely acknowledged for the Up series, which has been under the direction of Michael Apted (originally a researcher on Seven Up!) since the first follow-up, 7 Plus Seven (aka 14 Up).

I talked to Almond on the phone this week to get his thoughts on the series now that it’s nearly a half-century old, as well as to hopefully give him more attention for the work he did, footage from which is recycled in each new episode. The 81-year-old sets some things straight, offers some documentary history and anecdote about that first film and, most importantly, stresses that I should plug his “Alford Saga” novels, the fourth of which (The Pilgrim) was published in November.

What was your original intent for the show, and what had you hoped to show with it as a one-off program?

What I brought to England at that time, I can tell you, is an absolutely novel — for England — way of making a documentary. In Canada, we had wonderful documentary makers at the National Film Board of Canada. And in America you had the Maysles brothers. But in England, documentaries were made by somebody writing a script and then getting the script approved and then going out and shooting the script. Whereas, in Canada, as pioneered by the National Film Board, I believe that the subjects would do it all.

All I wanted to do was to find out what little boys and little girls of different classes thought about. I didn’t have any intention other than trying to find out what in fact were the differences. And I let the kids talk for themselves. There was no script. I congratulate dear Lord Bernstein [then chairman of Granada] — Sidney was a great guy, a wonderful mogul who had a face like an old boxer’s, long broken nose, and he was tough as hell, but just a wonderful guy. He said, “Go to it!” He didn’t want to see a script. And neither did [World in Action producer] Tim Hewitt.

Seven Up Slide

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How many kids were there originally?

I don’t remember. I think we had 20 or so. That’s 50 years ago. But I know we had quite a pile of them.

Yeah, you can see a number of kids in the zoo and party scenes who aren’t among the subjects we encounter individually.

There was quite a few. The other researcher, Gordon McDougall, found half the children and Michael Apted found the other half, [and then] I chose them. After we interviewed them, when I was editing, we picked the kids that seemed most interesting on screen. That’s how they got winnowed down. More in the editing process than otherwise. Then, those who ended up in the film are the ones that then Michael Apted followed.

I’ll tell you a quick anecdote. I don’t know if it’s interesting. I found it funny, and it’s always stuck in my mind. When we had them all, we brought them all to London, as you saw, and we took them to the zoo. And we figured, what should we have as a climax? We’ve got all these kids, what can I do to make it interesting to have a nice climax in the film? Well, we said, we’ll set up a really nice party in a room. It wasn’t very big. I got three cameras and three cameraman. And they’re all there and I said, “Okay, roll the cameras, action…” “Rolling one…” “Rolling two…” “Rolling three…” “Okay, action on the kids, open the door and let them in.” And the kids came in, and they were dead silent, because they’d never seen such plates of goodies. They stopped everything and just sat and ate. That was this big climax that didn’t happen.

I’ve always been curious what the parents thought about the decision once the series moved forward, but the films never really address that. What was your interaction with their parents or guardians like at the time?

When we did Seven Up!, nobody really knew what it was going to be. We said to the parents, “Could we just interview your kids?” Don’t forget, that was 50 years ago, and television was a very different animal. It wasn’t this huge industry that people have now. It was a much more human scale in the early ’60s. It had only been in existence 10 years in this country and in Canada, and it had been in existence 20 years in England, but in a very small scale. And Granada Television had only just come into existence just four or five years before. People didn’t worry about appearing on television. Today, you’d never get parents letting their kids go on TV and talk about what they thought, because they’d be afraid of being sued or made fun of. And I guess I was Canadian, so when I talked to the parents I think they trusted me, which was just as well because I said I’m not going to do anything wrong. And I didn’t.

Paul Almond Shooting Seven Up

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So, when the idea came about to revisit Seven Up! and continue to follow these kids, why weren’t you involved?

I quite liked England, but I guess I couldn’t take it for very long. So I came back to Canada in the Spring after I did Seven Up! And Michael Apted stayed on as a contract producer at Granada because he was good. After I came back, I started making motion pictures quite quickly. I did a picture for Paramount and then I did one for Universal. All of them my own scripts and done the way I wanted to do them. It’s not like the studio system today, when the big bosses tell you what to do and how to do it. In those days, I did what I wanted. So, I wasn’t going to go back and do the next version, not that I was asked.

But Dennis Forman, who’d been a good friend of mine while I’d been there, by the time six years had passed he was taking over the reigns of Granada from Lord Bernstein. Apparently, as I’ve read in many different interviews, Dennis Forman asked Michael, “Would you like to look at the children again?” And I guess Michael said, “Yes. What a good idea.” And from then on he decided to take the reigns and do the rest of them. But he did not decide to do it after Seven Up! He decided to do it after Dennis Forman had asked him.

So I stayed on in Canada. I forget if I went back to do shows. I’m not sure. I think maybe I did. I would go to America to do the odd TV show, but it never interested in me, because the American system is completely different than the Canadian. In Canada, the director was — I don’t know about today, because I haven’t done it in about 40 years, but in my day the director/producer was the boss and the agencies, if there ever were any, had no say and the executive producers and bosses of the network were only there to help the directors. Quite the reverse in America with all the showrunners and all those people telling you what to do, and the director just comes in and says, “Stand there.” It’s a terribly different system.

Then in 1990, I had open-heart surgery. So, I decided — well, really my wife decided, and I was delighted — to stop film and go into writing. Since then, I’ve focused totally on writing novels. I went to UCLA extension courses for about three years learning how to write novels. I learned a bit about it, and I started writing, and I’ve had all eight books in the Alford Saga bought by a publisher in Toronto. I’m very happy. I live in Malibu, California, on the beach. And Joan and I have a lovely life with eight grandchildren and five children — with their spouses, it’s ten. When we have family dinners there’s 20 people there. That’s the kind of life I lead, and I just spend my time writing. This winter I’m going to be finishing up book eight.

Tony Walker Seven Up

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Whether or not you’d have wanted to continue the series, do you think your not being English would have also made you ill-fit for the project?

I think it would have worked even better because I’m not of England. So I don’t carry loaded ideas with me. When I talked to the children — you hear my voice on some of it — I just improvised and didn’t have any viewpoints. I think it would have been fine. But I didn’t want to come back. I wanted to stay in Canada, curious as it may seem to the great American public and British public. I’m crazy about my own country. As an artist, you work best close to your roots. That’s what I believe.

Have you followed along with the series as it’s gone forward?

Yeah, I have. I’ve seen them every time they come out, I think. I’m always touched. I had a screening of Seven Up! itself in Montreal last year. And it was packed. I was just crying like a baby all through it, because I love those little kids so much. To me, I just remember them as they were at 7. I don’t know them today.

The only one I know is “Taxi Tony,” and we’re in touch every three or four months. In fact, he’s called me two or three times from New York in the last two or three days when he got there. He solicited money from people, and I gave him some, to come to do publicity with Michael. One of his phone calls was very touching. He said, “Paul, never forget: you’re the cause of it all.” I’m going to England in the autumn and I’m going to see him and we’re going to hang out together.

But I don’t really know the others now.

I think it’s interesting that Tony keeps in touch with you. Throughout the series, I’ve felt like out of all the subjects, he has made the films a benefit to his life, as in he made the effort to improve his life because it was out in the open.

I wouldn’t say necessarily he improved his life. He improved his enjoyment of life. He’s just a terrific guy. What is so lovely, it’s a bit like that wonderful film Searching for Sugar Man. Tony drives a taxi and all that, and he loves being in the limelight occasionally. Who doesn’t? It’s fun to do that occasionally. He does that a bit, but otherwise he drives a taxi. He hasn’t changed. He’s salt of the earth.

Neil in Seven Up

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So with the rest of them you just get the updates through each film with the rest of us?

Yeah. I see them there. I watch them, and I always go out of my way to say what a wonderful job Michael Apted does. I think he’s done a magnificent job, having persevered in this whole series all the way through. More power to him, I say. You’d think it’s easy. It’s a major series that’s studied in universities all across America and around the world, and he still has a hell of a time getting the damn thing on every time. He has to find the money and stuff. I take my hat off to him. That’s a hell of a thing.

While watching the films, have you been surprised about how any of the kids turned out or about the way the series has gone in general?

The only big, big surprise was that wonderful little guy who said, “I want to be an astronaut,’ and then he turned out to be homeless. That was a real shock, because he seemed to me he could have been prime minister. I thought he was going to turn out fantastically well. But then, of course, the brain does strange things sometimes, and we’re all a prey to that. It’s just too bad. No other shocks. They all seem to do pretty well.

I must say, frankly, that I did the first, it was a show. I did it, I directed it, I’m delighted it went well. I’ve done 130 television dramas and documentaries and a dozen motion pictures, so it’s not on my mind, that one. It’s nice every seven years I get to see what they all write about it and how I’m omitted and stuff. I haven’t really focused on it, and I don’t really think about it except, like the kids, every seven years it comes up and then I happen to notice what’s going on, and then I get on with life.

Seven Up! is currently available to stream in the U.S. via Netflix Watch Instantly and Amazon Instant Video (as are the subsequent installments through 49 Up). The latest in the Up series, 56 Up, is now out on DVD and is included in the updated eight-film box set.

The first four books in the Alford Saga, historical fictions that follow 200 years of Quebec, Canadian and world history through the eyes of one family, are available through Amazon and other booksellers. Another four books will be published through the next few years.

This is re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.