Michael Apted’s Flawed but Brilliant Epic of British Social Life

Michael Apted’s Flawed but Brilliant Epic of British Social Life

A Thing or Two About Life

The education of Michael Apted.


Michael Apted’s great Up series, about a cohort of English children, wasn’t conceived as a series at all. In 1963, fresh out of Cambridge and as a trainee at Granada TV, Apted was asked to find a group of talkative 7-year-olds for a 40-minute special about the children who would be Britain’s barristers and businessmen, factory workers and housewives, at the century’s turn. Directed by Paul Almond and screened in 1964, Seven Up! was to have been a one-off. But when someone at Granada suggested revisiting the children at 14 and again at 21, Apted jumped at the offer to direct. Even after his career took off and he moved to Hollywood, he made time to make a new installment every seven years.

With the release of 63 Up last year, the series spans nine films and six decades. It is Apted’s most important work and one of the most revelatory documentaries about social change ever made. It has attracted imitations, scholarly articles and comment, and hordes of passionate fans—though perhaps this is the case as much in spite of as because of Apted’s direction.

From the outset, he imagined the project as an indictment of class inequality. He wanted to make, as he put it, “a nasty piece of work about these kids who have it all, and these other kids who have nothing.” Drawn to children (mainly boys) at the sharp ends of the class divide, he recruited five of the 14 children from elite private schools and six from London’s working-class primary schools and care homes but only two from a middle-class Liverpool suburb and one from rural Yorkshire. In their interviews in Seven Up! these 7-year-olds unselfconsciously performed the hierarchies of class—theater all the more devastating for its actors’ innocence. Who can forget the now-canonical clip of Andrew Brackfield, Charles Furneaux, and John Brisby (the “three posh boys”) obligingly recounting their reading material (“I read the Financial Times”), their plans (“We think I’m going to Cambridge”), and their view that the public (that is, private) schools were a very good thing indeed, since otherwise, their schools would be “so nasty and crowded”?

Riveting cinema, yes, yet troubling, too, and not only for the attitudes it exposed. Watching, one can’t help but wonder about the adults behind the camera, who, after all, orchestrated the performances and chose the scenes most likely to arouse our empathy, laughter, or even scorn. Not surprisingly, by the time of the first sequel, 7 Plus Seven, some of the children had become twitchy and resentful, and by 21 Up, they bristled at Apted’s patronizing manner and leading questions. Sue Davis, Lynn Johnson, and Jackie Bassett (three of only four women subjects) were interviewed together, as if their shared working-class background outweighed any individuality they might have. He went on to ask: Were they angry about their straitened opportunities? Didn’t they resent that they would go nowhere in life? It is unclear whether Apted could see that he was enacting the very class relations he deplored, but his subjects stoutly rejected his analysis. They had plenty of opportunities, they told him, more than enough. They intended to have the lives they wanted, thank you very much.

Is it possible to fall in love with a work of art but be appalled by the artist? In “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” the essayist Claire Dederer dissects her complex feelings about Woody Allen. She can’t help loving his films, even while recoiling from their narcissism and sheer creepiness—the plotlines about men killing off their troublesome mistresses, the glowing girls preposterously still tumbling into bed with an ever-wrinklier Allen. Apted, of course, is no Woody Allen, but there is a similar connection between his touchy character and his brilliant oeuvre. His initial propensity to treat his subjects as stereotypes, his urge to goad rather than sympathize with them, his eagerness to pounce on and probe their every weakness or failure drove even the mildest of them to speak up—and as they did so, to make the films their own.

28 Up (1984) was the tipping point. The first film of the series widely screened in the United States, it was the one Apted considered a breakthrough. Only then did he realize that he wasn’t making “a political film about Britain’s social classes,” but something much more unusual: an ongoing inquiry into how individuals from a wide range of backgrounds sought out meaning and happiness amid the rapid social change of postwar Britain and all the random incidents and accidents that life threw at them.

The films after that changed as a result. Apted still layered in clips from the earlier installments, but the subjects were now interviewed individually, in segments that explored their unfolding lives and personalities. The films still had much to say about social class, but they now attended to other transformations as well, not least how the quest to balance family commitments and personal autonomy was spread across the social scale and revolutionized all of his subjects’ lives (especially the women’s). Apted wanted to raise awareness of the iniquities of class, but he provoked something else, too: a group campaign by his subjects to teach this emotionally tone-deaf man a thing or two about life.

The lesson began after 21 Up, and it first took the form of abstention. In 1964 no one thought to seek the children’s permission to ask intrusive questions, but by the early ’80s some of the interviewees had wised up. Charles, one of the three posh boys, went to Durham rather than Oxford or Cambridge. At 21, his stringy hair, jeans, and green sweater signaled his dissent from the values of his clipped and suited peers. By 28, unwilling to serve as a poster boy for class privilege any longer, he pulled out of the series. Apted called him up to remonstrate, but the conversation went badly, particularly after Charles announced that he had decided to become a documentary filmmaker, too. By his own admission, Apted “went berserk,” poisoning the relationship to the extent that Charles never appeared in the series again and even tried to force Granada to remove all footage of him from the series. The defection still rankles: Apted told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018 that Charles had “a rather undistinguished career with the BBC.” Cross him who dares.

The defections continued. John, another of the posh boys, also refused to take part in 28 Up, and three of the series’ participants skipped 35 Up (1991)—among them Peter Davies, a middle-class suburban Liverpool boy who had become a teacher and, after expressing sharply critical views of Thatcherite policies in 28 Up, was pilloried by the right-wing press. Traumatized, he refused to take part in the next three films, but like other participants, he eventually discovered that he had leverage and could bargain. He returned for 56 Up (2012) on the condition that he could promote his new band. John returned in 35 Up to promote his charity, Friends of Bulgaria.

The concessions made to keep John in the films provide, in themselves, a lesson in the workings of social class. The most opinionated and seemingly snobbish of the posh boys, he insisted at 21 that well-paid autoworkers could easily send their children to university if only they valued education more. But he clearly felt that he had been set up and in later films insistently revised the record. Though he was chosen to exemplify privilege, he said that when he was 9, his father died, leaving his mother hard up. She then worked to support the family, and he worked through his school vacations, spent a year in the army, and attended Cambridge on a scholarship. “I don’t regard myself as particularly typical of the type that I was no doubt selected to represent,” he said in 56 Up—not least because “apart from anything else, I’m three-quarters foreign.” John, it turns out, is a great-great-grandson of Todor Burmov, the first prime minister of an independent Bulgaria, and with this revelation, his charity work and his marriage to Claire, the daughter of a former UK ambassador to Bulgaria, suddenly fall into place. John, of course, reaped the benefits of his elite education. He is a barrister and a queen’s counsel, the top rank of lawyers, and enjoys a very comfortable and culturally rich life. This gave him the training, status, and confidence to set his own terms. But his irritated objections to the series’ pieties have become one of its pleasures.

Apted’s less-privileged subjects started pushing back, too. Take the two boys he found in a children’s home in 1964, Paul Kligerman, who was there because of a custody battle (he was later taken with his father’s new family to Australia, where he still lives), and Symon Basterfield, the only Black child in the series. Both were anxious and diffident children, and both drifted into manual labor. In the early films, Apted quizzed them about their seeming lack of ambition: Why didn’t Paul try for qualifications? Was driving a forklift really the best Symon could do? Very gently, both let Apted know that their priorities lay elsewhere. Both married young and put their energy into their families. By 28, Symon had five children, and those children, he told Apted, “have what I never had.” Which is what? Apted asked. Symon looked at him in disbelief. “A father, innit?” he replied.

Apted had centered his films on class, but another narrative was fast displacing it. Family, it seemed, was society’s bedrock and the individual’s haven. That focus on family suffused the later films, with subjects from modest backgrounds expressing great pride in their children’s accomplishments and bristling at any implication they might have fallen short. Lynn, for example, asked if she was disappointed that her daughters didn’t go to university, answered with a curt “no.” Working-class Tony Walker alluded to troubles that led him and his wife, Debbie, to raise their granddaughter but declined to elaborate. Andrew, one of the posh boys, and Bruce Balden, the son of a soldier stationed in what was then Southern Rhodesia, were sent to boarding schools while very young. (At 7, solemn Bruce said heartbreakingly, “My heart’s desire is to see my daddy, and he’s 6,000 miles away.”) As adults, both refused to send off their own children and married women who wouldn’t think of it anyway. Well-off Suzanne Lusk, whose disaffection at 14 and 21 had much to do with her parents’ acrimonious relationship and bitter divorce, made family and children the center of her life. Nick Hitchon, a farmer’s son from the Yorkshire dales who became a nuclear physicist and an academic in America, was open about the pain caused by the breakup of his first marriage, saying, “It was like a death.”

We can understand then why Symon, who had recently lost his mother and went through a hard divorce, declined to participate in 35 Up. When we are introduced to him again in 42 Up (1998), he has remarried, and we are not surprised to discover that he and Vienetta, his second wife, remain intensely family-oriented. Yet they have directed that empathy outward, too, working to reconcile with Symon’s first family and fostering more than 100 children over two decades. Claire Lewis, who joined the series as a researcher for 28 Up and now serves as its producer, captured the family orientation but missed the social ethic that can undergird it when she concluded, “When it’s all said and done, all people really care about is their family.”

Of course people care about their families. But what happens when that “truth” becomes the narrative through line? The Up children were born in the year of the Suez crisis, attended school during Britain’s wars of decolonization, entered university and the labor market in a decade of cultural and industrial strife, and (especially if they lived in London) watched society become—relatively quickly and with a sometimes violent white response—much more racially and ethnically diverse. As the series zeroed in on family life, not only class but much of this historical drama fell away. Today, when 13 percent of UK residents (and 40 percent of Londoners) are people of color, the disproportionate whiteness of the Up cohort feels jarring. True, the Black population in Britain of various ethnic origins was probably under a million when Apted went looking for his schoolchildren in 1963, but London, where he found 10 of them, was already a center for the country’s West Indian and South Asian communities and was changing fast. The films do provide occasional glimpses into this transformation (we watch Bruce’s East London math classes fill with the children of South Asian immigrants), but they don’t explore with any seriousness a postimperial reckoning that surely touched the life of every one of these subjects. When Apted let go of class, he lost sight of other social transformations as well.

The series is also oddly unreflective about the sexual ferment and experimentation that marked the 1970s and ’80s—or, at any rate, it keeps those issues off-screen. In the world of Up, people live in couples, and couples are heterosexual. Even though divorces are noted, there is no hint from Apted that the life course might take other forms. I can’t be the only viewer who squirmed when watching his graceless probing of reserved Bruce’s still-unmarried state in 28 Up and 35 Up. Could Apted really not imagine why people might wish to keep their sexual history or desires private? Bruce had an unconventional career path for a soldier’s son, teaching by choice in state schools in the East End and later traveling to Bangladesh, but he, too, eventually got with the program, marrying fellow schoolteacher Penny before 42 Up—which was the film that captured this group’s moment of what we might call peak coupledom. Was the series, by this point, documenting its subjects’ search for happiness, or was it guiding them down a particular path?

Small wonder, then, that the series’ most unusual and compelling participant stands out sharply—not only for his social awareness but also for his anomalous unmarried and childless state. Middle-class Neil was wide-eyed and engaging at 7 but by 14 was already showing signs of anxiety. By 21, he had dropped out of Aberdeen University and was living in a squat and working on a building site. When Lewis tracked him down for 28 Up (a task that took her three months), she found him in a camper in North Wales; when filmed, he was tramping in the Scottish highlands and was in obvious psychological trouble. Articulate and philosophical but rocking slightly to and fro, Neil voiced open doubts about his sanity and almost laughed when Apted asked him, inevitably, about having a family. “Children inherit something from their parents,” Neil said. Even if the mother were high-spirited and normal, “the child would still stand a very fair chance of not being full of happiness because of what he or she inherited from me.” Viewers everywhere were relieved to find Neil alive at 35 and, remarkably, serving as a Liberal Democrat councilor in the London borough of Hackney at 42 and in rural Cumbria at 49. (He still does this work and is now a lay minister as well, something that he says “delights me inside.”) If we value social commitment, Neil’s is a commendable if painfully achieved life. But, the films hasten to remind us, he is still living alone.

One might have expected more chafing against this sometimes cloying familialism, but perhaps because Apted chose so few girls, no middle-class girls, and none who would go on to university (and, frankly, because he had so much trouble listening to the ones he selected), the films slide through the ’70s without really marking the transformations inaugurated by feminism. By the ’80s, however, critics and audiences alike found the skewed gender ratio shocking, and while the filmmakers passed it off as just a reflection of earlier social attitudes (although the last time I looked, boys didn’t outnumber girls 10 to four in the 1960s), Apted and Lewis scrambled to respond. Their solution—to bring the male subjects’ wives more fully into the story—helped. Andrew’s wife, Jane, who described herself in 28 Up as “a good Yorkshire lass”; Paul’s Australian wife, Sue, who was often more perceptive about her shy husband than he was; and Debbie, the wife of East End lad turned London cabbie and bit-part actor Tony, have for decades brought much-needed ballast to the series. Their presence, though, is a distinctly wifely one: They explain, encourage, and occasionally correct or chide their husbands. Debbie especially, who had to put up with Tony’s on-camera confession of extramarital “regretful behavior” in 42 Up, has a look of mixed indulgence and exasperation that I wish I could patent. Tellingly, the wives who are what used to be called career women (Bruce’s wife, Penny, a busy head schoolteacher, and Nick’s second wife, Cryss, an academic) don’t play this mediating role, and Nick’s first wife, Jackie, the one woman who strongly defended an ideal of egalitarian and dual-career marriage, felt so bruised by the reception of 28 Up that she refused to appear in the films again.

And yet feminism came for Apted whether invited or not, from a direction he clearly never expected. Lynn, Sue, and Jackie, his three working-class girls, in some ways conformed to the series’ norm of family-centered life. All three married by 25, and while Sue and Jackie divorced quite young, all were attentive and caring parents to children raised with long-term partners, although Sue, interestingly, has not remarried and described her now two-decades-long relationship with Glenn as “the longest engagement known to man.” And yet she and Lynn also voiced the series’ strongest defense of the value of work, both for their own happiness and for its social purpose. Lynn worked for years in East London as a children’s librarian. “Teaching children the beauty of books and watching their faces as books unfold to them, it’s just fantastic,” she said in 28 Up. She spent decades battling to maintain children’s services in the face of the country’s austerity measures (by 56 Up, her job had been cut) and insisted, in film after film, that the work was profoundly worthwhile. Sue did various office jobs while raising her children—“I worked all my life, I can’t imagine not working”—and then took an administrative job at Queen Mary University of London. There, clearly talented, she flourished. By 49 Up (2005), though having never gone to university, she had become the principal administrator for the school’s postgraduate courses. Did she like the responsibility? Apted asked. Sue laughed and said, “I was born for the responsibility.”

Jackie, too, helped drag the series toward a more serious engagement with women’s aspirations and rights. On the face of it, perhaps next to Neil, she had the hardest life. Married at 19 and divorced soon after, she later had a “short, very sweet relationship” and a son, Charlie. Not wanting him to be “an only,” she then had two boys with Ian, with whom she amicably coparented even after their cohabitation ended. But Ian, tragically, was killed in a traffic accident, and Jackie, diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and unable to work, was forced to rely on (and be subject to the terrible indignities of) the benefit system. Yet it was Jackie who, in 63 Up, called Apted out for his decades of unthinking sexism. “When we were younger,” she told him, “I kept asking myself, ‘Why’s he asking me questions about marriage and men? Why’s he not asking me questions about how the country is?’ I felt you treated us, as women, totally different, and I didn’t like it.” His questions in 21 Up, she remembered, were especially obtuse and enraging. True, “when we started at 7…there weren’t many career women. But when we hit 21, I really thought you’d have had a better idea of how the world works, shall I say. But you still asked us the most mundane, domestic questions.” Jackie had had enough; in 21 Up she got so angry with Apted that he had to turn the cameras off—an intensely revelatory moment of the subject striking back, and one that Apted, to his credit, let Jackie revisit and explain much later, with the cameras rolling.

So is the message of this remarkable series really that social class matters less and personality, family, character, and accident matter more? Not entirely. Yes, some of the working-class children (Tony, Sue) did better than expected, but none became rich or famous, whereas all of the upper-class children (John, Andrew, Charles, Suzy) enjoyed very comfortable private (and in the case of the boys, professional) lives. What is striking instead is that the subjects resisted the simple social determinism that the series tried to foist on them at first, insisting that they were, in spite of it all, the authors of their lives.

As a result, the films do tell us much about the nature of class and social change in Britain across the past half century. Film reviewers treat the Up series as an entirely original endeavor, a unique attempt to document the relationship between individual aspiration and social change across a lifetime. But in fact, sociologists and ethnographers have been tilling this furrow for decades. The most creative such project is, perhaps, Mass Observation, which since 1937 has episodically enlisted ordinary Britons in constructing an ethnography of everyday life, including by writing diaries. Social scientists took up the challenge also through cohort studies that tracked the health, educational, and career outcomes of children born in 1945, 1958, and 1970 and through studies that interrogated thousands of subjects about community life at midcentury, the move from slums to new towns in the ’50s, the rise of commercial culture and affluence in the ’60s, and the impact in later decades of deindustrialization, political polarization, and new social movements.

In the last few years, historians have returned to those records, trying to free them from the conclusions that the interviewers (much like Apted) drew before the subjects could even open their mouths. In Me, Me, Me? The Search for Community in Post-War England, Jon Lawrence goes back to the interview notes from 10 postwar community studies to see whether people really had abandoned solidarity for individualism. Unsurprisingly, the truth is more subtle. People often supported what we might call social democratic values—the belief, for example, that the state should ensure that prosperity lifts all boats—while embracing aspiration (especially for their children) and the post-’60s view that they ought to be able to think and live as they please. Economic crisis and, still more, neoliberal policies hit that consensus hard: Cuts and privatization created winners and losers, even as social safety nets were shredded. And yet the cultural changes wrought by the ’70s were deep enough and profound enough that no one quite wanted to see the clock turned back. Women in particular did not mourn a past in which their horizons were sharply constrained.

As Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite argued in Class, Politics, and the Decline of Deference in England, 1968–2000, although class continued to matter—even as inequality worsened—people resisted labeling themselves by class; the very word seemed snobbish or blinkered. Most preferred to say they were ordinary, and yet they were still able to define complex identities for themselves. In a recent article, Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and three other historians (Emily Robinson, Camilla Schofield, and Natalie Thomlinson) trace how the social movements of the ’70s underwrote that shift in identification. Race and gender, they argue, had become as generative of social identities and social politics as class. The divergent trajectories but shared optimism of Sue, Lynn, and Jackie make sense in this framework. Much as they deplored the harshness of austerity Britain, all three felt that their lives were fuller, happier, more varied, and more interesting than they could have predicted. The world, though much more precarious, had split open and let them in.

The Up series has now been with us for a lifetime. Countless viewers have identified with its subjects’ trials and triumphs—especially, judging from the letters that pour in to the newspapers after each episode, if they are of the same generation. I am close in age to Apted’s subjects, which made watching 63 Up a rather melancholy affair. Having raised children and (often) buried parents, this cohort has become sharply aware of its own mortality. John’s law practice seems to be winding down, and Andrew, who had a demanding career at a major international firm, has retired early. He regrets not spending more time with his family, and he and Jane want to have some good years together while they still have their health. Bruce has cut back his teaching, happy to let Penny’s career take precedence. He worries about his weight and dreads not old age but the “disabling, degenerating conditions linked with [it].” So, with reason, does Neil, who has lived most of his life in the rural areas where he feels more comfortable and who has, as he says, “relied upon my body very much.” Over the decades, we’ve watched wiry Neil tramp through Scotland or Cumbria. Now he bicycles to the nearest village from the cottage he acquired, with a small inheritance after his mother’s death, in rural France.

There is sadder news, too. Nick, still teaching at the University of Wisconsin, has developed throat cancer. He isn’t frightened for himself, he tells Apted, but he dreads the effect on those close to him. And Lynn, who had what she thought was just a minor accident—a bump from a swing when taking her grandson to the park—went to a hospital and suddenly and incomprehensibly died. With her rock-solid marriage and close family, she had always been a bit irritated by Apted’s endless questions. “I’m happy with the way my life has gone,” she told him shortly in 56 Up. Five years after her death, her daughters dissolve into tears when speaking of her. Lynn is remembered for her dedication to the East End’s children. St. Saviour’s primary school, where she was a governor for over 25 years, named its refurbished library after her. “I don’t think I quite realized just how much she was adored by the wider community,” one of her daughters confesses.

Other participants are thinking about their lives and legacies, too. Revealingly, both of the middle-class boys are now doing what the aspirant and educated do when they want to leave a mark: writing. (Neil has an unpublished autobiography and Peter an unpublished novel.) But the difference between the world they faced as young adults in the late ’70s and the one facing their children and grandchildren has driven a few to an understanding—which the previously mentioned historians could not better—of how the collectivist entitlements and values of the ’70s cushioned their early difficulties and underwrote their later successes. Sue’s divorce didn’t derail her, she tells us, because she had “wonderful support from the council.” It helped her get and then later buy her flat, a bit of good luck that changed her life. With council housing now scarce and the National Health Service underfunded, she worries that the young face a much more precarious future than she did.

Peter, who so offended Thatcherites in 1984, agrees. Stuck in low-paying jobs in hospitality or call centers and with no hope of acquiring property, those in the next generation, he says, might be the first to have things worse than their parents. Even self-made Tony, who dreamed of owning a sports bar in Spain, has felt neoliberalism’s hard edge, with Uber and other ride-share apps cutting his and Debbie’s cabbie earnings by a third. A Leave voter during the Brexit campaign, he says he will never vote Tory again.

This reflectiveness is surely a byproduct of the project itself: One can’t be turned into a historical subject without it having some effect. Apted’s “children” have been forced to live examined lives, and this changed them in profound ways. Understandably, some have regretted ever getting caught in the net. In 35 Up, John memorably called the series “a little pill of poison” inserted into his life every seven years, and in 42 Up, Suzy said the films stir up “lots of baggage.” (She opted out of this last installment.) But most remain loyal to the project, to one another, and thereby, in a strange sense, to the social whole they are collectively meant to represent. Sue, for example, is happy to take part precisely because she thinks of herself as quite ordinary and hence useful. “The things we’re going through, everyone’s going through,” she says. And a few seem to love it. One is the ebullient Tony, who was once driving the astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his taxi when someone stopped them to ask for an autograph—Tony’s, he was shocked to discover. Another, more surprisingly, is Jackie. Asked how she could enjoy appearing in the series so much, given her often acrimonious relationship with Apted, she replies, “I told him off. I didn’t kill him!” Indeed, she, like several of the other “children,” has grown protective of Apted, who, however old they may be now, is older still. (He turns 80 next year.)

An unspoken question thus hangs over 63 Up: Will there be another installment? I am not sure that matters. Apted’s series is already a masterpiece and one that will last. Despite all the backtalk his subjects gave him and the way the series adjusted to credit their views, the project has much to say about the power of social class, even if people now insist on their right to contest its strictures and to define its meaning for themselves.

“For me, it’s still them and us,” Tony says. Asked how she sees herself, Sue replies, “Oh, working class, always working class”—a moving acknowledgment that while now-vanished social entitlements (and not just her drive) enabled her to prosper economically, it has not eroded her core identity and loyalties. And even though Jackie insists that despite everything (Ian’s death, her disability), she’s been “lucky,” she now concedes, more than 40 years after she blew up at Apted for implying that she had no opportunities, that she should have stayed in school. She’s proud of her three sons (one in the army, another working in a warehouse, and the third “cheffing”), but she is determined that her granddaughter will have more chances. “You’re going to uni,” she recalls telling the little girl. “What’s uni?” the child asked. “University,” said Jackie. “You’re going.”

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