Film Director Michael Apted on '56 Up'

The British director of 56 Up on documenting 14 people’s lives for half a century

Film Director Michael Apted on '56 Up'
The British director of the ongoing film series talks about documenting 14 people's lives for half a century (Illustration by Jimmy Turrell)
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

This started as a film for television in 1963. I went to schools and said, “Give us your brightest 7-year-olds,” and we filmed them. I was 22. There was no planning. The children were sort of railroaded into it. The schools said yes. Their parents said yes. Nobody knew what they were in for. About five years later, the guy who was running Granada Television—Denis Forman—came to see me and said, “Why don’t you go back and see how those kids are doing?” I’ve filmed them every seven years since.

We weren’t being malicious or exploitative, but there has been a lot of residual anger among the people in the film. There were mistakes. Out of 14 kids, I chose only four girls. The idea that women would have a major role in politics and business was inconceivable in 1963. I missed the most important social revolution of my lifetime, the changing role of women. In a subconscious way, I think I’ve tried to make up for that with my movies—whether it’s country music (Coal Miner’s Daughter) or chasing gorillas (Gorillas in the Mist).

Each film has to be self-contained so anyone can understand it. I may think all this 56 stuff is so great that I should cut most of the old stuff. But people want to see what happens over time. The previous footage is my ace in the hole.

I’ve learned not to play God. I did that with Tony at 21. He was running bets at dog tracks, so I did a sequence of him driving around the East End in his cab, showing me all the famous criminal haunts. I was preparing to film him at 28 in one of Her Majesty’s prisons. He didn’t take that course at all. I learned a bitter lesson there: I never again tried to predict what would happen.

This is the most important work I’ve ever done. It’s about ordinary people doing ordinary things, but the scope of it is so large. I thought 56 might be depressing—that people might be looking into the future with some fear, or looking at their past with a sense of failure. But it’s not like that at all. I was surprised.

In some ways, the series bears out what the Jesuits said: “Give me the child until he is 7 and I’ll show you the man.” Personalities don’t change. If you look at the 56-year-old face, you can see the 7-year-old in there. What you can’t predict is how people are going to cope with life. — As told to Diane Brady

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