Michael Apted's legacy secured with influential and ambitious Up documentaries
Filmmaker Michael Apted was no stranger to a Hollywood blockbuster, but his enduring legacy will be the Up documentary series – an intimate, profound insight into Britain’s social history.
Originally planned as a one-off for Granada Television, producers in the early 1960s plucked a group of children from various backgrounds in a bid to examine the enduring strength of the country’s class structure.
Seven years later, Apted, a researcher on the first series, returned to the subjects to check on their progress, setting in place the structure for one of the most influential and ambitious documentaries ever.
The most recent instalment, 63 Up, aired in 2019.
Apted, who has died at the age of 79, graduated from TV to Hollywood, and his films included the 1980 Oscar-winning musical biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1988 drama Gorillas In The Mist and 1999 Bond film The World Is Not Enough.
Apted was born in 1941 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and moved to London following the war with his father, who worked for a fire insurance company, and his homemaker mother.
He had a brother and a sister, who was adopted, and as a child studied at the prestigious City of London School.
It was here that Apted first developed a love of cinema and once described watching Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries as a teenager as his “road to Damascus” moment.
After studying at Cambridge, Apted began working for Granada at a seminal time for the nascent commercial TV industry. He served as an assistant to Up director Paul Almond and one of his roles was procuring the children who would take part in the series.
They included three boys chosen from a prestigious pre-preparatory school in Kensington, London, a girl from a working-class east London neighbourhood and a boy from a small farm in a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales.
Up starkly illustrated the different lives children from disparate levels of society led.
The black-and-white programme opened with the children playing at a zoo as a narrator explained: “We brought these children together because we wanted a glimpse of England in the year 2000.
“The shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.”
The first show, an illustration of the class system’s deep-rooted influence, proved popular but a follow-up series was not immediately mooted.
Instead, Apted busied himself with other projects. He worked on Coronation Street in the early 1960s, as well as sitcoms The Dustbinmen and The Lovers.
It was around this time the idea of returning to the original Up children was floated. 7 Plus Seven, with Apted as director, aired in December 1970.
Its subjects were now teenagers and gone was the eager innocence of the original series. Apted later said it was the most difficult to film.
The differences between the children was now more pronounced – the well-off filmed strolling through their elite schools contrasted with their more working-class counterparts.
As the film’s original premise suggested, it was more often than not easy to see in which direction the respective children’s lives were going, even at 14.
Away from the Up series, Apted was stretching his wings in cinema. In 1980 came Coal Miner’s Daughter, which starred Sissy Spacek as country music singer Loretta Lynn.
Spacek won the Oscar for best actress, one of the film’s seven nominations. It was also up for best picture.
The 1980s brought further success for Apted, with movies including Continental Divide, Critical Condition and Gorillas In The Mist.
The latter, starring Sigourney Weaver as the naturalist Dian Fossey, again combined Apted’s skills for matching an instinct for popular entertainment with deep emotional insight.
In 1991, 35 Up arrived, producing the now regular update on the participants’ lives.
Tony Walker, who was chosen from an East End primary school, had found work as a London taxi driver. In 35 Up, it was revealed he and his wife had lost the baby she had been carrying in the previous series, causing a strain on their relationship.
By 42 Up Tony had admitted being unfaithful, though the marriage had survived.
Apted continued to work in Hollywood, with 1994’s Nell, starring the Oscar-nominated Jodie Foster as a young woman who has to face the world for the first time after being raised by her mother in an isolated cabin.
In 1999 came Apted’s swing at a Bond movie. He directed Pierce Brosnan in The World Is Not Enough, also starring Robert Carlyle as terrorist Renard.
Notoriously, the film starred Denise Richards as Dr Christmas Jones, a role still bemoaned by 007 fans. Despite this, and mixed reviews, The World Is Not Enough was a box office success, making more than 361 million dollars (about £267 million) at the global box office.
Apted’s final film was 2017 thriller Unlocked, starring Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, Michael Douglas, John Malkovich and Toni Collette.
However, it is for Up he will be best remembered. By 2019’s 63 Up, death, illness and misfortune had befallen the subjects and the documentary had earned its place among the most acclaimed and influential ever.
Apted married his third wife, Paige Simpson, in 2014.