IN EARLY 1964, a young man fresh out of Cambridge was starting his first job in television as a researcher at Granada. At 22, Michael Apted was ambitious, idealistic, "wanting to change the world" - and the current affairs department at the most radical company within the ITV network was as good a place as any from which to do it.
Investigative journalism hadn't been invented as far as TV was concerned; social issues remained largely unexplored. There was Panorama on the BBC, but it was seen as a small-screen version of the Times - dry, lofty, with an agenda that rarely strayed beyond what was happening in the corridors of power. So in opposition to it, Granada set up a current affairs programme that was more in the mould of the old Daily Mirror: campaigning, and keen to tackle the concerns of ordinary people.
The founder of World in Action was a former newspaperman himself - an Australian called Tim Hewat. Like many outsiders in Britain, he was struck by the extent to which the country at that time was run along rigid class lines. "It was fascinating, and appalling," he says, "the way class seemed to stamp someone's life from very early on."
Hewat needed a format to explore the issue of class, and he found it in the Jesuit saying, "Give me a child until he is seven, and he is mine for life." So the instruction to the new researcher went out: deliver a group of seven-year-olds through whom World in Action could examine the spectrum of English society. It was the start of what Hewat calls "the most remarkable documentary series in the history of television" - and the making of Michael Apted.
Every seven years since Seven Up was first broadcast in May 1964, the cameras have gone back to chart the children's progress through life, and each time Apted has gone with them. From researching Seven Up, he graduated to directing Seven Plus Seven in 1970, and all the subsequent programmes in the series. Another seven-year cycle has just been completed, and this week 42 Up goes out over two nights on BBC1.
Apart from the subjects themselves, Apted is the one constant figure throughout this extraordinary project. Imitations have sprung up over the years, and real-life drama has become a TV staple. But there is only one Seven Up. "Maybe the genre is getting a bit overcrowded," Apted told me when he was in London last month to give 42 Up its final edit. "But what distinguishes Seven Up from others is its historical dimension. It's been going so long that people feel a real familiarity with these lives."
Tall and with the face of a medieval saint, Apted is a grown-up film director now. Aged 57, he lives in Los Angeles and has a cv that keeps him in demand with Hollywood producers. Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist, Nell, and Blink are all Apted films.
Along with Stephen Frears, Alan Parker, and Adrian and Jonathan Lyne, Apted is one of a generation of Englishmen for whom TV was a passport to the big time - only in Apted's case the septennial return journey he makes is far from being a step back down. "Seven Up's been a signature piece for me," he says. "I doubt I'll ever do anything as important again. And to think that it was the first job I ever did is unbelievable."
The idea of stopping doing it is one Apted says he would only confront if enough people dropped out. On the whole, though, they haven't. Of the original 14, 10 have been ever-presents, and for 42 Up one of the subjects who had declined to appear in 35 Up - Simon, the black boy brought up in a children's home - has come back in. All of which says a lot for Apted's quiet persuasiveness, and the way in which, as he puts it, "the Seven Up children have become like a part of my family".
With two of them Apted has formed particular attachments - Nick, the boy from the Yorkshire Dales who went on to become a scientist and live in America; and Bruce, the public schoolboy who found his calling teaching in the East End. And for others there is a depth of trust that goes beyond the usual limits of documentarist-subject relations. "It's almost as if we owe him rather than he owes us," I was told by Tony the cab-driver, who viewers might remember best as the Cockney lad who was going to grow up to be a jockey. And although Apted has had to accept the withdrawal from the series of two of the boys from the most privileged backgrounds (one of them, Charles, is now himself a documentary film-maker at Channel 4) and a third who felt it was exploiting him, he has kept alive perhaps the most moving story of all - that of Neil, the troubled wanderer last seen in self-imposed exile in Shet-land. And the turn it takes in 42 Up provides the series with surely its most remarkable moment.
Apted's own background is suburban Essex. His father was in insurance; his mother stayed at home. It was a classic Fifties childhood, in which radio was as important as TV, and you went to the cinema "to look at girls". The family wasn't especially cultured, Apted says, but great store was set by education. He was sent to City of London School in London. "From the age of 11, I used to travel in from Ilford by Tube every day, and it was as if the whole world was opening up to me." If he had not gone to City of London, he says, "the best I could have hoped for was to be a solicitor. I read law at university as a concession to my parents. Then I got my big break at Granada. It took my parents 10 years to realise I had a proper job. They were very upset."
The original Seven Up concept didn't have much room for children like Michael Apted. They would have been too middle-class. The programme was only ever intended as a one-off, and its aim was overtly political: to highlight the polarisation within society. So Apted's trawl for likely children threw up extreme examples of the hands dealt to people by life: from the trio of toffs who were able to specify the Cambridge colleges they would be attending, to the kids in care for whom life was always going to be a struggle. "It was a very dramatic way to present what was a problem in England," Apted says. "But not a good way to take a long-term look at England's future."
Apted's biggest regret is the relative lack of women subjects. Only four girls were chosen: a working-class threesome from the East End - Jackie, Lynn and Sue - and middle-class Suzy, who put an unhappy upbringing behind her to find solace in her own children. There are important areas of women's experience over the latter half of the 20th century - education and career emancipation - that their stories barely touch on. But then in 1964, Granada could not have forseen that. Partly as a result, the Seven Up series has turned out to be much less of a tract than was intended, and is all the more resonant for it. "What I had seen as a significant statement about the English class system was in fact a humanistic document about the real issues of life," Apted says. "About growing up, about coming to terms with failure, success, disappointment, about all the things that everybody can relate to." There's a strain of very English melancholy that runs through the series, and the question of what the Seven Up experiment actually proves seems largely irrelevant.
There is a lot more to come from Apted - his latest project is a film version of the Robert Harris novel Enigma, and there's every possibility that he will see his Seven Up children through to pensionhood. But whatever the future holds, his legacy is already assured.
! '42 Up': BBC1, Tuesday and Wednesday, 9.30pm.Reuse content