When Michael Apted directed the documentary "7 Up" half a century ago, he never imagined it would be more than "just one film."
"It was never going to be anything else," said the director, whose credits include "Coal Miner’s Daughter," "The World Is Not Enough" and "Gorillas in the Mist." "And it was, frankly, a pretty simplistic look at British class society" that included kids from working-class and privileged backgrounds.
"It was very successful because it was funny and chilling in the same breath," Apted said. "And it took us some time to figure out — let’s go back and see what happened to them."
Which led to seven additional documentaries, checking back in with some of those 7-year-olds at 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 and, now 56. The latest edition, "56 Up," is as fascinating and engaging as its seven predecessors.
The biggest change for Apted is that the gap between him and his subjects has narrowed.
"I’m 15 years older than them," he said. "And when they’re younger, that’s a huge difference. But now ... it seems to come closer together. And I think we’re more collegial. We’re more intimate. I think we’re franker. I think they’re savvy to an extent about what goes on, so they can handle themselves better. I can afford to push them a little bit."
Some of the subjects of "7 Up" decided not to continue. Some refused for one or more films and, later returned.
Some, like London cabbie Tony Walker, have appeared in all eight documentaries. And he has "never regretted it."
"I love the attention factor. I love all the things about it, what it’s meant over the course of the 50 years now," he said, praising Apted for keeping it going. "And I’ve always been a very happy, dedicated participant in the film and still am. I’ve got a lot of passion in there. And I can see the dreams and my life story, chipping away at a lot of dreams — I mean, kids coming along, marriage, and my mom and dad passing."
The films haven’t made their subjects rich, but they have made them famous. In "56 Up," he recalls one time when someone wanted his autograph rather than the autograph of former astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
"That’s an absolute true story," said Walker, who’s a bit of a fan favorite because of his outgoing personality. "I’ve become a TV personality, by definition of being on these programs," he said. "People get in my taxi, and they ask me for my autograph."
He did say it hasn’t always been easy to keep returning to the spotlight.
"Well, if you look back at ‘42,’ my wife and I had turbulent times in my marriage," Walker said, "and it was a very personal thing to put up in front of the worldwide audience. But again, that’s the thing that was happening at that particular time, and Michael left it in."
Walker sees the series of films as a "testament of Michael’s staying with it for 50 years, which must be one of the ground breaking documentaries of all time."
"I don’t know what its legacy will be," Apted said, "but I think, hopefully, one will be surprised what people get out of it. But I think, as a piece of raw material, of the history of a society over 50, 60 years, it is unique, and I hope it’s valuable to the future and will stay around for a long time."
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