"You must realize that life goes all around, and there are millions of other creatures who must find their parts as well." – Neil Hughes, 49 Up.
"Everybody has a story," Michael Apted says from his home in Los Angeles, "if you had time and the patience."
The 71-year-old director has had more time and patience than most, listening to the stories of 15 people in particular over the past 50 years.
The people in question were selected for a 1963 British documentary called 7 Up, and have been on film every seven years since, with the latest instalment of the series, 56 Up, about to screen in Toronto next week.
That first film was a project very much of its time: a 16mm, cinema verité-ish document of real people that was part of a social documentary tradition that developed in the the late 1950s and flourished briefly around the world (in Canada, at the National Film Board). The movement was motivated by a leftish political agenda, in 7 Up's case, a concern about the impact of the intransigent class system on Britain's future.
If this sounds like a precursor to what we now dubiously call "reality TV," though, the films were also strikingly different: domestic dramas in which the personal, the political, the economic and the cultural all converge to set the terms of "reality" itself. Drawn from various streams of the class-segregated English school system, the kids in 7 Up spoke of their lives, their fears and fancies and dreams of the future – being astronauts and explorers (among the less privileged) and lawyers (among the more comfortable) – with irresistible candour.
After the initial broadcast, two things were clear: The class system was alive and well in Britain, and so was our fascination with it. The show – broadcast on Granada television – was a huge hit.
"It was only ever going to be one film in 1964," Mr. Apted says, "and then suddenly we woke up and thought, 'Well, maybe there might be some more in this.' "
Mr. Apted, who started out as a 22-year-old assistant to 7 Up's Canadian-born director Paul Almond, took over after the second instalment (7 Plus Seven) – which means he has been listening to the stories of his subjects for most of their lives.
But what stories they are: There's Tony Walker, the brash Cockney kid who dreams of being a jockey but becomes a London cabbie; John Brisby, the upper-crust schoolboy who always knows he will become a lawyer; Sue Sullivan, who never goes beyond high school but ends up running a university department; Neil Hughes, the troubled soul who wanders homeless in Scotland before finding a calling in small-town politics, and Nick Hitchon, a Yorkshire boy turned nuclear physicist who once lamented to Mr. Apted that he will never be as famous for his work as he is for the Up movies.
Mr. Apted can't disagree. Between Up projects, he has made serious films such as Coal Miner's Daughter, Nell and Gorillas in the Mist, is part of the elite club of Bond directors (The World is Not Enough), and, since 2003, has been head of the Directors Guild of America. But no matter what he does, it's for the Up series that Mr. Apted he is best known.
Which is fine with him. "That's why I've always gone out of my way to make time to do it," he says. "I just want to look after it and make sure that it continues as long as I've got my marbles."
The subjects of the Up series have not been quite so unequivocal. Peter Davies, who reappears for the first time since 21 Up, dropped out because of the negative media attention he drew for criticizing the Margaret Thatcher government. Others, such as Suzy Dewey, struggle with what they feel is an unfair depiction of their class status. Then there is the heartbreaking Neil: He challenges Mr. Apted in the latest film for generating an image that seduces people into thinking they know him; he gets mail all the time, he says, but his fame has done nothing to help him get one of his books or plays published, nor to make his life any easier.
It's this kind of rawness, the inclusion of misgivings and disappointments, that is part of the series' appeal. There is also something primal about seeing real people grow up and older before our very eyes, in the process providing a vivid demonstration of how character and life experience interact. You can't watch these films and not reflect on your own life, or ponder how much of your seven-year-old self remains.
One one level, the seven-year-olds from the first film are erased: Paul Kligerman morphs from an underprivileged boarding-school kid who hates "greens" to a contented grandfather; Suzy is transformed from a sullen, overprivileged teenager to a thoughtfully self-reflective mother; and, perhaps most poignantly, the long-adrift Neil finally comes in from the cold, claiming – quite reasonably – that no one knows the value of home quite as keenly as someone who has lived so long without one.
What is compelling, though, is that for all these changes, there is also a persistence of character, no matter what else happens. That is one reason why class is not the determining presence it was originally thought to be.
"I think the series changed dramatically, sort of grew up, grew out of itself," Mr. Apted says. "I first learned this when I brought 28 Up to North America. I realized then that it had value outside an audience who would understand the class system. It had a value to almost anybody, because it was dealing with universal issues. It sort of organically changed course from being largely political into becoming a more humanistic document."
And if it has not always been easy, most of the subjects keep agreeing to be part of the series because they are as attached to it as their director. They understand it has a value greater than their individual misgivings.
"They're ordinary people," Mr. Apted says. "And I often think how they were chosen in a very arbitrary and quick way, and yet they turned out so well. Which makes me think maybe I was lucky – but, on the other hand, maybe it also means that, like I said, everybody has a story."