ITV: In Conversation with Michael Apted
In conjunction with the recent broadcast of 56 Up, the latest instalment in the “Up” television documentary series, filmmaker Michael Apted talked about his career with documentary maker Leslie Woodhead at the Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012. Originally commissioned by Granada television and directed by Paul Almond as a one-off look in 1964 at the lives of fourteen British children from different backgrounds, the series has continued to follow their progress under Apted’s direction in seven year intervals.
Here are some highlights from their discussion:
Leslie Woodhead: How did it begin for you with Granada in the early 1960s?
Michael Apted: I went to Granada in 1963 when they were recruiting raw talent from the universities. Before Granada approached the theatre and the BBC, so they were trying to train a whole new generation of television programme makers. But the problem was that they didn’t really have the resources to train us. So training started out as watching people and then became on the job, which was occasionally catastrophic. With another trainee I was dragged out to meet a Canadian director, Paul Almond, who was under a short term contact to Granada doing a Tennessee Williams play. The job was to recruit some seven-year-olds to make a documentary about the English social system.
… out of the mouths of babes came these startling truths about the system.
The notion was that you put a camera on top of a Golden Square, which is where the offices were, and you put twenty children in the square. Five steps forward and you say that those five have successful lives; then the rest of the fifteen won’t, depending on where you come from in terms of your social background and education. We took a great central idea and refined it somewhat. Paul was a great director, who wanted to make it more artistic, but we were more attuned into the social aspect.
It was going to be a one-off show. We made it, found the children in three weeks, shot it in about three weeks, eventually it went on the air and it was a huge success. It was ingenuous, sweet and innocent, and out of the mouths of babes came these startling truths about the system.
LW: Can you describe your working procedure?
MA: We reverse engineer it. We find out when Granada want to broadcast it and then we work backwards. In some ways, the big preparation is figuring out the actual substance of the thing. We know what the headlines of their lives are, but we have no real idea psychologically what’s going on, and I never prepare for that. I sit with down them and do these long interviews. We just talk about what they want to talk about. I go with whatever they say, again knowing in some ways the bigger issues in their lives. But I don’t prepare anything.
You never quite know what the vibrations are going to be. I thought that for “56 Up” thay might be about thinking about retirement. Then of course when it came out, when it came together it had this tremendous optimism about it. Even though characters who were central to it, like Jackie, had a miserable time. When you look at the film I think why this was fairly successful is because it had a kind of optimism to it. People are in solid relationships and these are very powerful things which can overcome some of the political stuff which has been thrown at them. Each generation has to stand for itself. It’s at least a drama in a way. Once we shape it we get the idea of what the story is, where the drama is and we have to feed the information to the audience gradually.
The one thing we’ve got which no-one else has got is the past. We can go back into these people’s lives and see where these things came from. From one small oak this acorn grows. That’s what the audience expects.
LW: How do you respond to the charges from some of the Up participants about not portraying them properly?
MA: It’s is totally fair, when you think of the time they give me compared to the duration of the film. On the whole, no one has left because of the way they’ve been treated. Two have left but one came back. People haven’t left because of misrepresentation; usually they have some crisis in their life. I don’t think they complain about one show, they just complain that it’s a lot of bother.
In 1964 the idea that we’d have women running the country by 2000 was out of the question.
Most of them, even if they like it, pretend they don’t. It’s just a question of constantly wooing them. We didn’t have enough women at the beginning. In 1964 the idea that we’d have women running the country by 2000 was out of the question. It caught up with us pretty quickly.
A theory I’ve learnt over the years is that I have to be a blank slate. I daren’t go in with predictions, pre-empting things. Remembering what they did in “49 Up” a couple of times, I tried to anticipate what would happen and got it completely wrong.
LW: The series has enjoyed massive success in the United States where you might think that the preoccupations might not strike a chord…
MA: Well, that was the big epiphany I had. I remember I went to live out there and people said they’d love it see it. I said, “you can’t see it”. Why? Because you won’t understand it. How can an American understand comprehensive schools, private schools, grammar schools? They won’t understand the English class system. I didn’t want to sit with an audience of people looking blankly at the screen. Anyway, when I showed it to them of course they got it. That showed how completely incorrectly I’d thought about it. I thought I was carrying on the legacy of “7-Up”, its strong social viewpoint, but we’d left that far behind. Now the film had its characters and their interplay and all the things going back to ordinary life: the things that everyone has to deal with.
I think “28 Up” was a crucial film. In “7 Up”, “14 Up” and “21 Up” there was a kind of cockiness, but by the age of 28 people are in what they call the bathwater of life. They’ve made choices; their options are closing down; they’re married; they’ve had children; they’ve got jobs. There’s a kind of gravitas about it. I think that was the turning point. I was lucky I didn’t show the film abroad until “28 Up”. We knew more of what we were doing by then.
LW: How do you feel about applying to documentary some of the criteria which actually belongs to narrative fiction?
MA: It’s at the centre of my working life. I had the opportunity to do a film and a documentary on the same subject. I was doing a documentary about how [former USA President] Nixon was trying to emasculate North American Indians with divide and rule tactics taken from Vietnam. Then this script landed on my desk and it was exactly the same story. It was so interesting, because each have their power and weakness. The power of a documentary is that you are looking at the stuff for the first time. Its weakness is that it can be very flabby and soft. The power of a successful movie is how complicated it can be, how complex you can make it, how you can show what a documentary can’t. On the other hand, it doesn’t quite have that life that a documentary has. It doesn’t have that attack. I’ve always had that with me. My soul is that of a documentarian.
Even for a move, something as fantastical as James Bond. The Bond I did [THE WORLD IN NOT ENOUGH] was set in the Caspian so I insisted we went out there to see how it is and what was going on. We came back with some staunch images which we put into the sets. Everything is from a documentarian’s point of view. Where other movie-makers have an imaginary point of view. It’s just really the power of the documentary which started with 7-Up.
ITV: In Conversation with Michael Apted took place at the Sheffield Doc/Fest on Thursday 14 June 2012.
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