The story behind TV's longest-running documentary series, Up

The story behind TV's longest-running documentary series, Up

By Carole Solazzo,
Thursday, 13th June 2019
Jackie, Lynn and Sue in the original Seven Up! (Credit: ITV)
Jackie, Lynn and Sue in the original Seven Up! (Credit: ITV)
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon

Carole Solazzo meets the team behind one of factual TV’s most iconic experiments, 63 Up

Give me the child for his first seven years, and I will give you the man.” This nature-nurture Jesuit maxim has been the lodestone of the legendary documentary series Up since it began in 1964.

Originally intended by Granada as a one-off, Seven Up! looked at the lives of a group of seven-year-olds from a variety of social backgrounds and areas of the UK, breaking convention by interviewing just the children.

Michael Apted (Credit: WP Film)

Michael Apted – who researched Seven Up! and has directed all the ­subsequent series – and the other prog­ramme-makers have been charting the fortunes of the same children ever since, checking in with them every seven years to take a snapshot of their lives. Remarkably, it is still going strong 56 years later.

ITV celebrated the series in early June with 7 Up & Me, in which famous fans of the show – including Richard E Grant and Michael Sheen – watched the show and talked about their own lives at the same age. This was followed by the first episode of the latest instalment, 63 Up.

Ahead of the new series, three key members of the production team and one of the participants, Sue Sullivan, came together at an RTS North West event in mid-May to talk to Granada Reports presenter Lucy Meacock.

Claire Lewis, who joined as a researcher on 28 Up and has produced the show ever since, likened the team and the participants to “members of a family. We pick up after seven years as if nothing has happened. When things go wrong, we are all affected.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. One contributor, Jackie, who was in the audience at the Lowry Theatre, took Apted to task in 21 Up for his “sexist questioning”. She recalled: “I was angry [at Apted].” He asked the girls about men and marriage, but “he’d ask the boys what the Tory party was doing”.

Sullivan said [being on the show] felt as if “I’m living my life in seven-­year segments… Every seven years… Michael comes along and asks questions... and I reflect on my life.” She continued: “With the trust that we have in Michael and [director of photography] George and everyone – we can be ourselves.”

Because of the trust that has developed over the years, Lewis insisted she had no reservations about following the participants around with cameras. She spoke of “the privilege of being a part of… such an extraordinary project”, calling the show “pure, old-fashioned documentary film-making”.

She added: “Talking heads [are] the most powerful thing.”

George Jesse Turner, who has worked on the series since 21 Up, agreed: “I’ve kept to the original cinéma vérité style, where the camera becomes people’s eyes. A lot of people who work in TV now will find it refreshing.”

Editor Kim Horton, who made his series debut on 28 Up, gives context to each of the characters’ lives by cutting in some of the extensive archive footage. “A mammoth task,” he admitted. ‘[But] Seven Up! always yields some wonderful lines and pictures.”

Meacock noted the “incredible symmetry” of the images, which was illustrated by Nick, who was shown as an adult walking down the same farm track that we saw him walk along as a seven-year-old child. Turner added that he tried to “get as much information [out of the images] as possible” to convey time as well as place.

So are the Jesuits right? Lewis believes so, with Neil the exception that proves the rule. “He was the most lovely, vivacious charming seven-year-old,” she said. “And at 21 [after a breakdown], he was labouring on a building site and living in a squat.”

Lewis said it was because of Neil that 28 Up won a clutch of prizes, including an RTS award and a Bafta: “It was the one, after Seven Up!, that really put us on the map.”

Neil had gone missing. She tracked him down, after three months of searching, to a caravan in the Highlands, interviewing him by the side of a loch. “It was possibly the most profound and moving interview with a young man I’ve ever done,” she said, praising Neil’s courage and honesty. It resonated with the general public, too: “Homelessness meant something because it was someone they’d seen as a child.”

Will there be a 70 Up? “Seven years is a long time,” admitted Lewis. “Who knows?”

The RTS North West event ‘A celebration and screening of 63 Up’ was held at the Lowry Theatre, Salford, on 16 May and produced by Rachel Pinkney.

From researcher to director

Michael Apted joined Granada straight from Cambridge University in 1963 on a six-month apprentice contract. One of his first jobs was as a researcher on World in ActionSeven Up!, which became the first of the ground-breaking documentary series Up.

‘There were two of us researching it, myself and Gordon McDougall,’ Apted recalls of the ‘fairly haphazard’ process. ‘He dealt with the north of England, I did the south. The brief was to find children who weren’t embarrassed or who closed up when asked questions.

‘If I found someone I liked, I checked with the teacher whether they had the nerve to be in front of a film unit.

‘We were both looking for different branches of the population – upper, middle and working class – to make sure all were represented.… We had less than four weeks to choose the children, [and] would constantly review them to see which stayed in the mind. Since there was no thought of contin­uing the series, we didn’t do a lot of research.

‘We had to trust our memories… beyond some note-taking and the occasional still, we had no film of the first round. So a lot depended on our memory of the 20 to 30 minutes we spent with them.’

Apted went on to direct news, football and Granada Reports, moving on to Coronation Street and dramas written by the likes of Jack Rosenthal, then into movies.

Then one day, in the Granada canteen, the broadcaster’s de facto head of programmes (and later its Chair), Sir Denis Forman, walked up to Apted and asked if he’d ever thought of revisiting the seven-year-olds to see how they were getting on, this time to direct the show? Apted directed 7 Plus Seven and all its successors.

How it all began

As an Aussie, Tim Hewat, then editor of Granada current affairs programme World in Action, ‘was absolutely horrified… at the rigidity of social class in England’, said producer Claire Lewis. ‘His inspiration [for Seven Up!] was: “Does social class predetermine how children turn out?’”

Having commissioned the show, Hewat returned to Australia before he could see it out. However, Lewis added, ‘before he went, he made Derek Granger the executive producer’. Granger, who later produced Brideshead Revisited, ‘assembled whoever they could find within Granada to make it.

‘[Michael] Apted and [Gordon] McDougall beavered away to find the children’ and Seven Up! ‘was shot by David Samuelson, a news cameraman, who’d never shot anything like it before’.

Lewis believes another reason ‘why Seven Up! was so special is that it was directed by a drama director, Canadian Paul Almond, who happened to be at Granada waiting to direct something else.

‘He asked Samuelson… to do all sorts of crazy things… like putting his camera on the floor, following [the children] running across the playground, all sorts of ground-breaking stuff that made Seven Up! so different. The edit was then supervised by Granger.

‘It was a fabulous team, put together by chance… and [the show] won almost everything when it went out.’

You are here