BOB GARFIELD: Forty-two years ago, director Michael Apted began a series of films that have become quietly historic. Using a Jesuit maxim, "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man," Apted began following a group of British seven-year-olds, 14 of them originally. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] [FILM CLIP]
LYNN, AGE SEVEN: I'm going to work in Woolworth.
NEIL, AGE SEVEN: When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut.
SUSAN, AGE SEVEN: When I get married, I'd like to have two children.
BRUCE, AGE SEVEN: My heart's desire is to see my daddy.
NICK, AGE SEVEN: I don't want to answer that. [END FILM CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The film was called 7Up, and every seven years since, Apted has made another film charting the children's progress. The Up series was originally intended for British television and was meant to explore the degree to which Britons were defined by class. Thought to be too British for any other audience, it has instead become the blueprint for what film can do, and a kind of unlikely prototype for our own reality-TV culture. Apted's newest iteration, just released, is called 49Up, and he joins us now. Michael, welcome to On the Media.
MICHAEL APTED: Thank you. Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that the central premise was something along the lines that class distinctions are immutable and they are destined to inform our lives into adulthood. Four decades later, do you believe that class still determines everything?
MICHAEL APTED: Well, in many ways, it was designed as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was my job to go out and find the children, and I was instructed, really, to find them from the margins of society, from the very empowered – not the reasonably empowered – and from the very impoverished. One of the caveats I have about talking about the film is when it's presented - is this a portrait of Great Britain - you know, I say, well, it's a portrait of a generation, a generation that was born in the mid-'50s that's now 50 years old. Had I started the film five, ten, fifteen years later, it would have been different – not substantially different, but nonetheless different. England’s still governed by, you know, the accident of birth, but to a lesser and lesser extent.
BOB GARFIELD: When these kids were seven, I got to tell you, Michael, there were a couple of 'em I hated. There was this one little girl who looked like she was going to turn into some future Margaret Thatcher nightmare -
MICHAEL APTED: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - who [LAUGHS] has actually turned out quite well.
MICHAEL APTED: I thought she was toffee-nosed, and she was extremely difficult when she was 14 and 21, and you can see it on the film. But then at 28, she clearly had an epiphany and got a grip of herself and grew up, or whatever you want to call it, and got married, had children and was a whole different character. And in some cases, I think, she's been, you know, very inspirational to people. But, you know, the people were chosen very haphazardly, and it is amazing how they've all turned out. You know, I had no idea that they would become such rich characters. Now, is that telling me some great truth, that everybody has a story, that everybody has poetry in their voices? I don't know. I'd like to think in some ways it does. If you celebrate the ordinary life, which these films do, then people can really deliver stuff that can be illuminating.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the little boys you spoke to was a happy-go-lucky little kid named Neil with a big, bright smile on his face, a good-looking kid - just seems to be loving life. [FILM CLIP]
NEIL: When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut. But if I can't be an astronaut, I think I'll be a coach driver. [END FILM CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: He grows up to be a very troubled, sometimes desperate, young man who is intermittently homeless and has all the appearances of being at least borderline schizophrenic. Tell me about Neil.
MICHAEL APTED: Well, I mean, his life, as you describe, is a rollercoaster. I think that those of us, you know, who saw him at 28Up and 35Up, you really did wonder whether he was going to make it to the next film. But then at 42, we see him back in society, and, in fact, a politician, which is, I suppose, ironic and whatever.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
MICHAEL APTED: And at 49 again, you know, he seems to have a much more positive view of the world, and you begin to get flashes of that seven-year-old twinkle and that vitality.
BOB GARFIELD: On tape, they have expressed some degree of misgivings about their participation. [FILM CLIP]
JOHN BRISBY: It has to be said that I bitterly regret that the [LAUGHS] headmaster of the school where I was when I was seven pushed me forward for this series, because every seven years, a little pill of poison is injected into - [OVERTALK]
MRS. BRISBY: Oh, no.
JOHN BRISBY: Well, that's the, well, that's the truth. [END FILM CLIP]
MICHAEL APTED: I think there is a lot of residual resentment from them because, you know, they had no say in being part of it, and suddenly find they're stuck with it. Some of them love it, some of them are middling about it and some resent that. For me, that's one of the toughest jobs I have is to try and persuade them to do it every seven years. And what happened in 49Up, which is much more discussion about being in the films, is the gorilla of reality television, which didn't exist when we did 42Up. And I think that's posed all sort of questions to them about what is the nature of the Up films, and is it reality, is it documentary? Are we being exploited? Should we be making tons of money? Is this something that we should be associated with, or not? So I think those questions became asked. And I think it's very much, you know, in the public mind, the whole morality and value of reality television. And then therefore, I think it's in the minds of the people in my film.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you agree not to go in certain directions, not to cover certain parts of their lives, to just leave some of their stories out?
MICHAEL APTED: Oh, very much so. I mean, I'm a total prisoner to the system. If you do longitudinal work, then you have to behave yourself, because you certainly won't be asked back next time, or they won't come back next time. So, and also, some of them demand to see the product before I've locked it up. And, again, I can hardly refuse. And, you know, we have discussions about it and we argue about it, and I win some and lose some battles. But I really don't see what choice I have if I want to keep them involved and with a continuing presence in it.
BOB GARFIELD: In the very beginning of the first episodes, 7Up, 42 years ago, you quote the Jesuit maxim, "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." Is that actually true?
MICHAEL APTED: A bit of it's true. I think what I get out of it is that there's a core personality that you see at seven that really doesn't go away. But I like to think that we are masters of our own fates to a lesser and greater degree. But, nonetheless, it's certainly true that in any of the industrial societies, there's a deep unfairness at work, that some people get options and other people get a lot less option. But whether, of course, at the end of the day, they're any less or more happy than the others, that's a question only the viewer can answer. And one of the great problems I've always had doing the film is not to project my own middle-class neurosis about what happiness is. Happiness to me is, you know, a successful career, making money, my children and my marriage and all that, but, you know, other people have different value systems, and I have to respect that. And if other people haven't bothered to search for a career and they've been happy to do what I would consider routine jobs, that doesn't make them any less successful or any less or more happy than I am. And that was quite a hard lesson for me to learn, which I think I've learned over the years of doing this film.
BOB GARFIELD: In one respect, you seem to have beaten the mortality tables. I think if you asked an actuary, he would have said that odds are one of your subjects would have died by now, maybe even two. But none has. Should that occur, are you prep -[LAUGHS] Are these are your children? Are they your subjects? Are they strangers? Are they friends? What is your relationship?
MICHAEL APTED: Well, they're family. I mean, that's how I see it. Some of us are close, some of us aren't close, but we have this blood bond, in a sense. And so, I just hope that I'm the one that goes first. I should do, statistically, as you would say, but I can't even begin to think how one would handle it. I mean, if I knew, for example, one of them was terminally ill, you know, and didn't have long to live, what would I do? I mean, those are decisions I can only make when they're in front of me. They're kind of unimaginable to think about sitting here now.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL APTED: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Apted is the director of the Up series. The most recent installment, 49Up, is being released in the United States October 6th. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo and Mark Phillips, and edited – by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Rob Christensen was our engineer. We had help from Alicia Rebensdorf and Michael McLaughlin. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org, and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.