Michael Apted on '63 Up' and the Past, Present, and Future of the 'Up' Series

With the latest installment of the 'Up' documentaries in theaters, the director gets personal about his 55-year involvement in the landmark project.

Michael Apted

Depending on when you discover the Up documentaries, the landmark series will affect you in a relative manner. My first time watching Seven Up!, 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, etc. was at age 28, which made the coinciding installment that much more poignant. I’ve watched them all again in my thirties, and 56 Up arrived when I was 35 and starting a family. Now I’m 42 as 63 Up is released. For anyone who has been following these films through at least a few of them, it’s a reunion for us as much as it is for filmmaker Michael Apted and the dozen or so subjects that continue to participate.

The latest installment, which is the eighth sequel to what Paul Almond began for Granada Television back in 1964, is the first to feel, to me, quite personal for the director. Apted, who was initially involved as a 22-year-old researcher who helped find the original children spotlighted in Seven Up!, has carried forth the project for the last 50 years.

“Oh yeah, definitely,” he answers by phone when I ask whether this series is as much about him as the people onscreen. He’s sort of an invisible character, whose voice we hear during the interviews and through his voiceover narration, remaining behind the curtain. “I don’t want to be in it,” he tells me regarding his choice to stay off-camera. “I don’t want to be that distraction.”

We get more and more of a sense of his presence in later installments, though, as the participants address — and sometimes criticize — Apted and his project they’ve been a part of since childhood. In 63 Up, he’s called out by Jackie for his gendered line of questioning in the early episodes. John brings up how he’s been misrepresented by the program. During Apted’s interview with Sue, she turns an inquiry about aging back on him.

“It’s all a communal thing,” Apted says of his own participation. “You can’t really tell what’s going on in the future. They can’t. I can’t. That put us all together more, that we were in some ways all on the same roulette table. I think it put me on the same level as them rather than some god who sits there and spits up all this garbage about the future.”

To a degree, the participants are also Apted’s collaborators. They’re part of the ongoing process, wishing to see its progress, and they are invited to view the compilation of footage for their respective segments ahead of the film being finished. If they have any issues, they’re permitted to request changes. “I don’t necessarily encourage it because I don’t want them to give me notes that I know are wrong,” he admits. Yet he does want to maintain their interest in the series. “I don’t want to lose them on that. Unless I think they’re barking mad and getting rid of one of the best parts of their character — and they know that. They know they have the last word.”

Apted also doesn’t just see the participants as subjects of a documentary. “I don’t want to sound pretentious, but it is a family,” he affirms. “I see them obviously every seven years, maybe for three days.” That is why 63 Up is particularly personal and emotional for all involved because they lost one of their own since the release of 56 Up. The film doesn’t dwell on the passing of Lynn Johnson, and many longtime fans (including myself) likely already know of her death in 2013 anyway, but we still feel it tremendously when her bit comes up.

Sometimes, Apted can seem critical of the members of his Up family, though, or at least as an agitator through his interviews. “I don’t want to be telling them how to live their lives,” he says. “I’ve got to learn to live my life properly before I can say that to other people. But I don’t mind being a bit overbearing. Maybe even to annoy them, which might set them off.”

In 63 Up, this comes through most notably with Bruce, who is seen on holiday in New York City with his wife and children. Apted presses him about his past work focused on others, particularly his stint teaching in India, and how he’s now mainly concerned with his own life and his family. “If I think that I can get some fire from them by giving them some honest appraisal of what’s been going on…,” he defends about such provocation. “I won’t do something that will destroy them forever in terms of their relationship with me. I never really get into a situation where I think I would deserve it if they never came back. I never want to do that. I don’t want to create a phony bit of excitement on the telly just to get more people to watch it or to invite people to leave.”

When news of 63 Up‘s release arrived, those familiar with the series responded immediately with one thought: we get to find out what the Up characters think of Brexit. But while that is definitely an inquiry for some of the participants, the topic is surprisingly not as prominent as expected. Only a few of the subjects are asked about it. “There was nothing to tell,” Apted says. He was given an extra budget to address the topic more, later on in follow-up interviews, if anything actually happened. “They would give me more money to shoot a Brexit answer, and nothing happened. It was absolutely ludicrous.”

Apted says that from the time he began shooting two years ago until 63 Up was broadcast in the UK, they were waiting for something to happen with Brexit. “It’s ridiculous!” he exclaims. “No one knew what to do with it. The whole thing was a complete cockup, and it’s still a big cockup. There’s something profoundly wrong with it. I don’t think they’re ever going to sort it out until they get some other people to do it. It was driving me mad because I knew I had some of the people in the film for a certain period of time and then I wasn’t going to get them. It was torture. I had to keep warning people something might happen and I’ll come back, so be ready for this. Nothing happened. And still hasn’t happened. No one knows what to do, no one has any vision of it. The country’s going to the dogs.”

Outside of that obvious elephant in the room, Apted doesn’t like to focus too much on politics with the Up documentaries. “I’m no authority, necessarily, on politics,” he admits. “I enjoy politics, but I’m not ahead of the game, so I’m not going to ask questions to people who are much more advanced in politics, economics, whatever they happen to be. I’m pretty much an ordinary man when it comes to what I know and what I don’t know, so I don’t want to step over that and show off and be very, very knowledgeable about economics or something and make a terrible mistake because I’m not really being honest about who I am.”

He adds that he’s not trying to be patronizing or keep things too simple or obvious in the interviews. He just isn’t above any of the participants, nor does he desire to be. He says, “It’s a conversation between me and them, which is really what the film is about. I’m Mr. Average, so I’m not going to sit there and start discussing nuclear science or something like that since I don’t know about it and will embarrass them. I don’t see much difference between me and them. I have got the advantage of getting into the job I wanted when I was 21, which was with a very good education behind me, but I’m only talking to them on my own level. I’m not pretending that I am way ahead of them.”

Another thing I considered while watching 63 Up is how uniform the subjects of this series have become and just how universal they are as people with similar concerns as me and much of the rest of the First World. “I think people are more educated now, generally across the board,” Apted says when I ask him if the series has become more relatable as the planet has seemed to get smaller. There’s something to the speed and prevalence of communication and media today but he’s mostly thinking of there being a more savvy audience.

He explains that we all can pick up on more through more serious programs on television. “I think people are more interested in news now because they get such a lot of it on the whole,” he explains. “It’s well done. There are lots of different political positions coming out. It isn’t just the BBC, and they were the brothers of truth and all that kind of stuff. I think people still like to have programs that make them laugh or cry or yell at things but part of that is also people are more educated about the world that TV covers. They’re more aware of what’s going on. People now know more of what we’re talking about because they’re more educated about it.”

The Up series has become more well-known and recognized as well. Apted was recently honored with the inaugural Critics Choice Landmark Award at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards (as President of the Critics Choice Association’s documentary branch, I was involved in this) for his achievement on these films — or film, as he refers to them collectively in his voiceover. “I do. I think so,” he says when asked if that’s the case. “I’ve never sat down and watched them all together. I must say. Maybe I’m frightened to do that.”

He hadn’t received much notice for the project before this year, but he’s not surprised such accolades are finally coming about now. “I think the documentary genre has become more and more popular and more and more sophisticated,” he says. “With that, stuff we’ve been doing stands out a bit more because it’s rare. People are more [into] documentaries than they have been in the past and so they’ve picked up on this. I’m pleased with it that it’s never fallen apart. That it’s not a joke.”

From the time he took on the Up series after the original film, Apted had a feeling this would be a lasting project. “I always thought it was a good idea. And it was also an original idea,” he confesses. “Other people who’d tried it usually gave up pretty quickly. I think as it went on, I began to get a feeling that as long as Granada was deadly serious about it, there was a chance that if I kept my word about it and my interest in it and stuck with it, it could go on a long time, which is what happened.”

Over the years, the style and structure of the Up documentaries have been consistent, even after the transition from film to video. Apted hasn’t changed much in his approach but does recognize the moment when everything got easier. “The big thing that changed was that we could run for 60 minutes without stopping,” he says of the move from reels to tapes. “I remember in the first four or five episodes, I had to be careful that I didn’t run out of film in the middle of something really historic. I knew what would be the big points, and I used to have someone sit very near me telling me how much more time I’ve got in this particular reel. You got three minutes, and I’m not going to start something very important there. Or you’ve got 30 minutes left, so I can start something. Not having to change reels for an hour made me much more able to go deeper into some parts. That was very, very helpful.”

In the half-century of making these films, Apted has never lost interest. “It’s something I love doing,” he recognizes. “It isn’t a chore. It can very emotional between us. Because we know each other so well. There’s always a worry. It’s a bit hair raising. We’ve had our moments, some of us, together. I’ve lost the guy from the BBC. We’ve lost one to death now. But the whole idea of the program, rather than turn it into a story about me and my particular likes and dislikes in them, I’ve tried to keep it intimate with them. I’ll back away from that once I get a sense of that in my voice or their answers if they suddenly become nervous or worried or I think I am just showing off for myself.”

Still, early into the making of 63 Up, Apted thought this one might be the last. “I said maybe everyone has had enough of this. Let’s do this and get out,” he tells me. “But I realized that was ridiculous because as soon as I started shooting this episode I could see how much stuff there was to be done and how much people like to be in it or are happy to be in it or open themselves up.”

Now there are only two reasons Apted would stop working on the series. One is if he really did wear it out. “If I ever started taking the piss out of them or annoying them just to get a funny moment then that will be a reason to stop it,” he acknowledges. “Whether it’s true or not, to get a cheap laugh. Once I knew it was in that territory I wouldn’t continue it.” The other reason would out of his hands, sadly. “I can’t talk about it particularly or want to talk about it, but I’ve recently had some medical problems, which might mean this is the last. I don’t know.”

Would or could the Up documentaries continue without Apted at the helm? He’s not sure, but he thinks that’d be possible. “Frankly, if I popped off and someone wanted to take it over, yes. If it was someone who had been associated in some way with the film. I was very lucky to get the job. I was smart about getting the job. I don’t have any confined attachment to it. As long as no one would choose to take it on who would wreck it. I can’t imagine the people who’ve been with me all these years would let that happen. If they keep going and Granada keeps going, then keep going.”

Personally, I can’t imagine anyone but Michael Apted asking the questions from behind the camera. He may not have started the project, but he’s made it what it is. With help from other collaborators with less credit, sure, but as already mentioned, he’s pretty much one of the characters in this so far 55-year adventure. “I’m 78 now,” he reminds. “Let’s assume I’m taken out before the next one. I think it’s in decent shape. People might say, well, he’s gone so let’s forget it, but I don’t think I’ll have left it where people would say it won’t be him, it’ll be someone else, what are we going to do? So I feel good about that.”

63 Up is now in theaters.  

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.