Michael Apted’s “56 Up” is the latest in a series of documentaries shot for British television that initially set out to talk about class differences in a radically changing, early ’60s Britain. Taking a group of schoolchildren at seven years old — some rich, some poor, some in-between — he interviewed them about their dreams, ideals, and hopes. Since that first film — grainy, black and white, very much post-war Britain — Mr. Apted has returned to the same group every seven years for a follow-up doc, named after their age: “21 Up”, “35 Up” etc. In between these films, Mr. Apted has made a career as a director of Hollywood films both pop corny — “The World Is Not Enough” — and award worthy — “Gorillas in the Mist” and “Nell.” But the “7Up” series will be his lasting monument.
At 72, he’s still checking in with the group, and “56 Up” — which screens at Campbell Hall this Monday and features Q&A with Mr. Apted — finds the cast mostly enjoying their middle years. It’s not as gloomy as one would think.
“I suppose I had fears going in,” Mr. Apted said. “I would have thought they would be more obsessed with mortality and the economic crises and all this stuff. But I’ve learned over the years to pretend that I’m starting all over again (with the film), otherwise it will just be a follow-up to the one before. Each film has a different kind of tone, and I try to preserve that freshness … I have to have all the past films rattling around in my head, but I have to focus on ‘this is them now’ not ‘this is them then,’ and can I nail what state of mind they are in now.”
In these films, Mr. Apted remains offscreen, but his voice can be heard. He’ll pick up from where he left off seven years previous. He’ll ask couples if they’re still happy. He’ll remind them of past struggles and criticisms to see if things have changed. And in the editing room, he’s able to stitch together footage from previous installments to show the characters’ evolution.
(Asked how he manages to keep these people returning every seven years for what a lot of them has said is a grueling business, Mr. Apted is blunt. “I pay them,” he says. “I should and why not. They’re key to the whole thing.”)
The film “7Up” was initially about class, and Mr. Apted notes that that year, 1963, the whole of Britain’s class system had been shaken by the Beatles — working and middle-class lads who were earning their way to the top. “England changed,” he says. “It was more flexible. The class system became more archaic. It’s still there. But with a long period of socialist government, the education system was opened up to more and more people. The world changed.”
The series bears some of this out. Although the boarding school boys he interviews go on to become the lawyers and bankers they initially aspired to be, it’s the working class subjects that wind up carving their own path. Some seem very comfortable, able to afford holiday villas in Spain, to give one example.
One of Mr. Apted’s other worries about “56Up” was the presence of the Olympic Games in London. For many of his subjects, it was on their doorstep, but he didn’t know how to get it in. However, he reached back into his archives and found a sequence with Tony Walker, an East Ender who drives a taxi. It was a sequence that Mr. Apted hadn’t used, of Mr. Walker at the greyhound racing track, and how the track had closed because of the economy. But now the footage had new meaning: the track had returned as one of the main Olympic stadiums, and Mr. Apted shows Mr. Walker, excited to be sitting in the brand new stadium. It’s one of several examples that prove to Mr. Apted that cynicism doesn’t help in approaching his subjects.
Mr. Apted admits that earlier on, he did battle with cynicism and feeling patronizing to some of the subjects — being nearly 20 years older than his subjects, it wasn’t hard to do — but now it’s made him rethink his own life.
“My life was dominated with work and career in some ways at the expense of family life,” he says. “I was away a lot. And maybe I looked down at those who had decided to sit at home and raise children. But what’s ironic about ’56 Up’ is those people who invested time and money in their families, it really paid off for them. They have a solid base in society that some of us don’t have, especially as we’re all being hit up economically. So much for the struggle for wealth. Where has it got us?”
Every chapter in the series returns to its original Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Does Mr. Apted still think that is true?
“In a small way,” he says. “Their (fundamental) personality doesn’t change … but how they’ve grown up as people, their moral level, their courage level, their intellectual level, their emotional level … I can’t see how you’d possibly (fore)see that.”
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: UCSB’s Campbell Hall
Information: 893-3535, www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu