What Happens Now to Michael Apted’s Lifelong Project ‘Up’?
For more than half a century, filmmaker Michael Apted has returned to his life’s work every seven years: he documented the same ordinary people he had known since he was seven.
In nine installments of the “Up” series, which has been dubbed the noblest, most notable, and deepest documentary project in history, Apted, in its native England, took a low-key view of class, family, work and dreams, both dashed and achieved. The programs beginning with “Seven Up!” In 1964 he inspired international copycats and even an episode of “The Simpsons”.
When Apted died last week at the age of 79, he left behind not only his enormous artistic venture, but also a nontraditional family unit that was uncomfortable, transactional, and as intimate as possible at the same time.
“It’s a bit surreal,” said Jackie Bassett, one of 20 school kids originally featured on the series and later part of the core group that showed up each time. “He knew us so well,” she said in an interview, and yet she had no idea that the director was seriously ill.
In 2019, “63 Up,” she processed some of her decades-long frustrations about Apted’s handling of gender on camera.
“We had our moments,” said Bassett, a working class grandmother from East London who now lives in Scotland. “But it’s a bit like having a favorite uncle that you drop out with occasionally, but it doesn’t change the relationship. He introduced me to a life I wouldn’t know about otherwise. “
Tony Walker, once a fugitive boy hoping to become a star jockey and become a cab driver instead, said Apted was like a brother to him. “He’s always been there,” said Walker, choking. “We never thought it would end.”
In addition to the eleven remaining attendees – one regular, Suzy Lusk, who last signed out and another, Lynn Johnson, who died – longtime Apted employees are also pondering the fate of a project that has spanned their professional lives.
Claire Lewis, who started as a researcher on “28 Up,” and later became the lead producer, said Apted has always been “very proprietary” with the series. But she remembered that on the press tour for “63 Up” when it became clear that the director was getting more frail and forgetful, he said to an audience of Q. and A., “I suppose she could do it” and Lewis gave a gesture.
“I could go on,” said Lewis, adding that it would depend on subject consent and the health of the crew. The cameraman George Jesse Turner and the sound engineer Nick Steer have been in the program since “21 Up” from 1977 onwards. The editor, Kim Horton, joined 28 Up.
“Neither of us are spring chicken – we’re all geriatric, honestly,” said Lewis, citing her own age as “70-ish.” “We’re going to need an ambulance, if we ever do it again, to get us anywhere. I think we just have to say we’ll wait and see. “
When asked if she would be attending without Apted, Bassett started crying. She agreed that Lewis, who had long been charged with keeping in touch with the cast between filming, would be the next in line. (Walker agreed and was more excited to keep going.)
“70 and 7 have good symmetry,” said Bassett. “It should definitely be the last for everyone.”
The mortality had already hung above the last rate. Another subject, engineering professor Nick Hitchon, who started out as a shy farmer from the Yorkshire Dales, learned he had throat cancer and struggled through his end of the shoot.
Apted was “a fixture in my life,” Hitchon said in an interview from Wisconsin, where he taught in the early 1980s. “Despite the fact that as English people we can’t communicate well, I felt a little close to Michael,” he said more and more as he got older.
For the “Up” series it is important to get through life from retirement to death, said Hitchon. But he preferred not to think about his own future participation. “To be honest, if I’m alive at 70 I’ll be very, very happy,” he said.
The “Up” series began as a one-off for the current “World in Action” program on Granada TV. Apted was initially a young researcher tasked with selecting the children, and a casual suggestion from an executive to review them seven years later gave new life to the project.
Along the way, Apted became a Hollywood director and led projects as diverse as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and entries in the James Bond and “Narnia” franchises. He has also been “reluctantly referred to as the godfather of reality television, which he has clearly objected to over the years,” he said Cort Kristensen, Apted’s assistant and production partner.
“He cut his teeth to do newscasts and got into a screenplay drama afterward,” said Kristensen, “and he loved using each other’s skills to improve each other.”
“Up” was also a document of technological progress. Horton, the editor, recalled walking “from tape to button press” and storing hours of footage on a hard drive the size of a “pack of cigarettes in my pocket.”
Nevertheless, the series has remained persistent and uncomplicated, with sparse narration and without music or modern techniques. It’s optimized for viewing every seven years without binging, with plenty of catch-up material repeated each time.
“Every seven years we got a new commissioner and a new executive producer, and they all got on the program because they thought they were going to change something,” Horton said. “Michael dropped them all,” politely at first and then with a colorful two-word sentence.
His staff said that if they continued without him, this essence would prevail. “Michael felt very, very, very strongly that it had to stay the way it is,” said Lewis, noting that the director hated “tricky, artistic-farty” documentaries.
“His preference was simplicity, elegance,” she said. “It was about people and what they say and who they are. It was all about the stories. “