Michael Apted Took the Very Long View

When the director
Michael Apted died, at 79 years old, on January 7, social media lit up with remembrances. He had directed many
films, including Coal Miner’s Daughter,
and more recently, prestige shows on premium cable, but fans mourning him were uniquely oriented toward one of his efforts, the Up series . “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man,” was the maxim of the first of
the series, 7 Up. To
make good on that saying, for the 1964 short TV program  7 Up, Apted interviewed an assortment of 14 English boys and girls
who were all seven years old. He then returned to them every seven years, until the
last edition, 63 Up , in 2019. It was the greatest documentary
television series of the last
century.  The Up series was a crucial endeavor for two
reasons. By following these Britons for 56 years, Apted’s Up series shone a unique and sometimes devastating light on how
people’s fates are decided as much by social attitudes and class as by their
character or grit. But the series did something else. It adapted and helped to further
the form of documentary naturalism. In literature, naturalism means classic novels
like Sister Carrie or Germinal that follow characters for years or even
their lifetimes, with a special interest in how society and its biases form
them. Think of its method as mega-realism,
with the clock set for 50 years rather than, say, an election season or a
short, miserable marriage. In contrast, most television and even film
documentaries sometimes interview their subjects for a single sitting, with
interview subjects often wearing the same jacket or pearls in every clip.
Naturalistic works also tend to feature a wide range of characters across the
class spectrum, and the Up series did
this, as well, following children who attended posh schools and those who grew
up in an orphanage: The aim was not
just reproducing life but commenting upon it. The Up series showed
audiences a story played out over a lifespan, with the people in the story
changing and aging in real time, long before similarly ambitious experiments in
American fiction film, like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and the Before
trilogy films. In the former, Linklater filmed a boy and the actors playing his
parents over the course of 12 years, creating a single film of wrenching
temporality and power; in the Before
series, the director filmed actors who played a couple over 25 years in three
different films. Far more modestly, the Up
series changed my own life, affecting how I reported and wrote nonfiction, and
how I understood how we become ourselves.   How did a
British director making a black and white short for Granada TV in 1964 about schoolchildren create a masterpiece, and shape a whole genre? Apted’s initial Up television documentary had him
interviewing Symon and Paul, who
were living in an orphanage; Jackie and her two working-class girlfriends; and
three upper-class boys, among them public schoolboy Andrew Brackfield who, at seven, said he liked to see how his shares were doing and that he would study at Oxford. What
was remarkable, though, was what happened next. Apted pursued these
people’s stories, visiting them at intervals. Over the years, it became a
melancholy exploration of advantage and disadvantage, of the nub of personality
and the casing of class identity, and the arrow of chance. The filmmakers shot
in London, the Lake District, and Liverpool, with the
same cameraman shooting, deploying a bland yet probing visual style. Over the years, the series became a
melancholy exploration of advantage and disadvantage, of the nub of personality
and the casing of class identity, and the arrow of chance. The results could be
predictable, occasionally shocking, and sometimes sorrowful or luminous. Up, in other words, combined the
loftiest reaches of the sociological imagination and the grimiest depths of
reality television reunion specials. The show raised questions like: Is there more
class mobility in Britain than America now? But also: Would Linda find love?
Would Neil be living as a nomad? ( Up ’s
subjects were not representative of British society in terms of race or gender
but are more varied than the typical selection of subjects in the early 1960s.)
Working-class Tony, who had been a loud and
cheery boy who aspired to be (and briefly worked as) a jockey, learned “the
knowledge” and became an East End cab driver, making a solid living for
himself. It seemed he had exceeded his parents’ lot, until the 2008 financial
crisis tore his fragile economic stability apart. Tony was not bailed out like
the banks. He mortgaged his house and went into debt. At 63, though, he had
apparently regrouped, and appeared reasonably content, though he still had to
work as a driver. Up ’s naturalism
showed that for Tony and others, so much of what we think of as our singular
obstacles and failures simply are not. Rather, they are societal and systemic,
and in the case of illness and death, universal and existential.   Andrew, one of the upper-class trio, did, in fact,
go to Oxford as predicted and then on into finance. But
sometimes there were zigzags. The clever farmer’s son from Yorkshire, Nick
Hitchon, defied social-class determinism and became a physics professor: He
left for America at an early age and taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And
yet, when we last see him at 63, he is very ill with cancer, and his second wife
is caring for him. And
then, of course, there is Neil Hughes, who had gone from being a wildly
imaginative middle-class little boy to a
depressive adolescent to a man struggling with homelessness. He ultimately
became a local government representative. He was what I feared I could have
been if I had gone quite wrong.  He told The
Guardian that he sees himself as a
complete failure.   Each set of interviews raised the questions of what
defined individual destiny. Apted never hit us over the head with this reckoning during
the series. But it was hard to forget, as I watched it, starting with 28 Up in the middle of the 1980s, that
the social safety net was unweaving. In Thatcher’s England and Reagan’s
America—I grew up in London and New York City in the 1970s and ’80s—our countries
were beginning a process of privatization of as many social services as
possible, including finally, the privatization of the self. Thatcher would say,
“There is no such thing as society,” just “individual men and women, and there are families,” but Up showed that there was a society, and that class,
gender, and race still set people’s expectations and created or limited their
possibilities, alongside individual will. Apted’s rigorous and unique longue
durée method was a perfect tool for exposing this post-1979 rise of income inequality
and rampant individualism. It was hard to forget, as I watched them, starting with 28 Up in the middle of the 1980s, that
the social safety net was unweaving. For many of the characters
of Up, how their lives turned out—for
good or ill—was not even mostly their
fault. In
fact, the slow burn of Up did not just show which ones thrived and which
ones merely survived, but it also revealed the limits of contemporary
mobility. In the United States, the probability of a child born to parents in the bottom
fifth of the incomes reaching the top fifth is 7.5 percent. In a supposedly
much more class-hardened England, the mobility rates are actually slightly higher,
though not by much: only 9 percent, according to research by economists Jo Blanden and Stephen Machin . The installments of Up every seven years offered far more
than simply viewing the dry tragedy of economists’ graphs and kept viewers from
normalizing stumbling blocks of the films’ subjects as theirs alone. Neil
supposedly lost his way and became a squatter due to a “nervous complaint,” but
did he in truth receive the help he needed? It’s a method and a message that’s particularly important
today, a time when hordes of
American and British citizens want to cut themselves off from the globe
(Brexit) or from tens of millions of other Americans (Trump loyalists). These
citizens see themselves as utter individuals, not as products of a society. The
consequences have been dire.   The series was also an argument about nonfiction, about how important
duration or time is when we tell people’s stories—not just spending hours with
subjects in a concentrated way but spending years upon years with people. 7 Up taught me
the value of revisiting subjects in this fashion so that when I wrote books, I
followed a mini-Apted method and let the subjects’ stories define my books’
timing. For instance, I might return to the same subjects multiple times over
the course of roughly five years. I also always sought out people from a range
of backgrounds, as Up did, to at least
attempt an “in the round” effect. Like many Up superfans, I was hoping that there
would be a 70 Up. I was looking forward to hearing Apted’s stentorian and
sometimes sarcastic voiceover
prodding and clarifying his subjects as they discussed their retirement plans,
their knee replacements, their septuagenarian divorces or marriages, their “olds”
reunion album or their later-life revelations. I awaited the images of contentment written across the faces of some and
fear across others. But it was not to be, at least not under Apted’s watch.
The comfort that remains, of course, is
that Apted had the amount of time he did to make U p. To paraphrase the series’s motto: Give me a
documentary made over 56 years, and I will show you a society.

2021-01-12 | critical mass, Culture, Michael Apted | English |