There are many different ways to study human nature. Academics and researchers the world over make it the focus of their life’s work, yet few studies have had the same impact and wide reach as the ‘Up’ series – regarded as the world’s best documented longitudinal study.
“I take it as the most important thing that I've ever done”, says the series' director Michael Apted in an interview with SBS The Playlist podcast host Fiona Williams. And coming from an internationally acclaimed director, with major blockbusters (like a James Bond film) under his belt, that’s really saying something. “It could become a really powerful and important piece that would stay around for some time.”
The concept of the series couldn’t be more simple – we meet 20 children at the age of 7, we learn about their lives, their backgrounds, their hopes and dreams, and then we check in with them every 7 years. What makes it special is that the series is now in its 6th decade, with the latest instalment ’63 Up’ screening over 3 weeks on SBS.
Michael, who’s worked on the series from its beginning in 1964, recognised it’s potential early on as “the first serious documentary that spoke about the nature of our social life”, and made a commitment to make himself available for filming every 7 years for the rest of his life – a promise which he’s kept.
It’s easy to imagine that in lesser skilled hands, the series might have been trivial and that audiences could have lost interest long ago. Instead the series has fascinated generations by offering a completely unprecedented access and perspective on the development of a human life.
“I take it as the most important thing that I've ever done”
It’s Michael’s skill as a director and interviewer that elevates it from its potential triviality into something special. He has an outstanding ability to the get the most honest answers from his subjects by striking a balance between sympathetic and probing. His willingness to push beyond what is ‘polite to ask’ is what often results in the most insightful responses.
Also significant is the rapport he’s built with the participants over the years. As the series progresses, you can see the familiarity increase between director and subject, allowing for more intimate exchanges. Probably the best example of this is in his interaction with crowd favourite Jackie, a cheerful and outspoken East End lass who’s not afraid to put Michael in his place. When asked about his relationship with Jackie, Michael says:
“She's hilarious, I mean we love each other to death. But you know she gives me a hard time, and I try and give her a hard time, as it were. I mean we don't mince our words together, but I'm never cruel to them or unkind to them, and I certainly don't try and trick them, or anything like that. (…) I don't want them to try and hide stuff or play games with me, but I have to do it in a gentle way.”
The series begins with the famous Jesuit quote ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ – implying that a person’s character is formed by the age of 7. When asked what he thinks about the unfolding of the participant’s lives,
Michael says by and large they have followed a logical pattern.
What about his own life? Does he think the boy the was at 7 is the man today?
“I was very, very shy and very, very quiet, and wouldn't say boo to a goose or whatever. And I didn't really come out of that (…) And then I did a James Bond, with a cast of thousands, and millions of dollars, and all this that would seem to be inconceivable.”
So perhaps the saying is true, that we are who we are by the age of 7 – but it doesn’t mean that life doesn’t surprise us.
Listen to the full interview with Michael Apted in SBS' movies and TV culture podcast, The Playlist:
The second instalment of 63 Up premieres on SBS and SBS On Demand Monday 17 June at 7:30pm.
Catch up on episode one at SBS On Demand:
Subscribe to The Playlist Podcast