If there is such a thing as a seven-year itch, then Michael Apted should know about it. For the past 44 years the English director of movies such as Gorillas in the Mist and the latest Bond offering, The World Is Not Enough, has been turning up in the same people's lives every seven years and watching them have a good old scratch.
The 7Up series reached 42 two years ago. We have been witnessing the lives of Bruce, Neil, Suzy and the others since they were children. With each new instalment their views at 7, 14, 28 etc are intercut with the current reality of their lives; it's the practical test of the Jesuit maxim, "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man."
7Up was never meant to last this long: the first film was conceived and transmitted as a one-off World in Action to look at the "shop stewards and executives of the future". It was 1964 and Britain was beholden to its class system: Margaret Thatcher and her nation of middle-class shop-keepers had yet to steal the limelight. The posh kids would become posh adults; the poor kids didn't stand a chance.
Apted was 21, just off a six-month training course at Granada Television, and almost his first job was to round up the 12 children who would take part. He had 10 days and, not surprisingly, didn't stray far from the toffs vs tykes remit. Only four girls made it in and only one non-white; Liverpool and Yorkshire provided a dash of regional interest, but Britain was condensed into England, and London took the lion's share.
It was hardly a perfect cross-section, but despite its contrived manner, it made its point. As the basis for what is claimed in some quarters as perhaps the most important television series ever made, however, it is hardly ideal. That's why the offspring of 7Up, including the American and Russian versions (which are produced by Apted), are altogether more seriously researched. And why the director of the BBC's latest addition to the family, 7Up 2000, Julian Farino, met a thousand kids before settling on his group.
When we meet, Apted is clear about Farino's advantage. "He has more than the benefit of hindsight, he has the benefit of knowing that he's in it for the long haul. We didn't, and we really didn't take enough care in choosing the children."
They also took a long time to realise that it might be worth returning to see how the children were doing, and whether the circumstances of their birth really did predetermine their future.
"It was all very casual," recalls Apted. "Even though the film was incredibly important when it came out, the earth moved, so to speak, even then we didn't say 'Christ, we're on to something here.' It was an obvious thing to have done, when you look back, but it didn't occur to us for a good few years."
Seven Plus Seven remains the film that Apted found the hardest to make: "The material was dreadful - as teenagers they wouldn't say anything. Yet we started to realise the power of the idea; despite the film not being very good, everyone was interested in it." He wrinkles his nose in distaste: "I remember going on countless talk shows."
Signing up for an hour of television, or even two, is a far cry from agreeing to put yourself under a lifetime's scrutiny: "The most problematic thing for me has always been to convince everyone to take part," he admits with a shrug. "I suppose Julian may find it so too, because at seven you really don't have the faintest idea of what you're in for, you're being signed up for better or for worse by your elders to something which might prove horrendous. We took a leap in the dark and a certain number of our group have always resented that they were pushed into it by parents or teachers." Nevertheless he has been surprised at the individuals who have withdrawn. "It is the reverse of what you might expect: the more successful they are, the more unwilling they are to take part."
Considering how media-savvy we all are now, you might imagine that Farino had trouble finding parents willing to sign away their kids' privacy. Yet after trawling the length and breadth of Britain, the production was turned down by only one family. To Farino, this acceptance is a measure of how well respected Apted's work is: "Michael has shown absolute integrity. My job is to match that level of integrity and concern for the lives I put on screen."
The two directors met at the conception of 7Up 2000 to discuss what lessons Farino might learn from Apted's experience. While Farino is unsurprisingly delighted to be offered the chance to work on such a prestigious series, Apted is slightly cool about the project: "I suppose it's all right," he proffers. "It's a good idea, and I've always maintained that my films only speak to that generation and you would probably find a very different picture of Britain through another." He pauses, before adding rather wistfully, "I just hope it doesn't dilute the effect."
That effect falls somewhere on a gauge with Social Science stamped at one end and Soap Opera at the other. Apted is at first quick to play down the scientific import: "It's not scientific in any sense really," but can't quite pull off the disclaimer. "Even if I don't make any claims for it, it clearly has a huge scientific value." In reality it is a bit of both: most people simply enjoy being reminded that we were all once younger, more idealistic, more hopeful; they note the passing hairstyles and fashions like familiar dates in their memory diaries.
But it's more than mere nostalgia: we calibrate our own lives through these individuals' experience. Are we more successful? Are we happier? Have we made better choices? And what of Farino's addition to the genre?
"It's hard for me to look at it," says Apted. "It isn't like the original, which is fair enough: it is born of its time. I had an agenda - the class system - which was maybe a strength, maybe a weakness, but Julian doesn't have such a vivid starting point. You might argue that the vividness I had was false, and by the time I reached 28 I knew I wasn't making a film about class anymore; I was making a study of these people. Julian knows that going in; the sense is that we are going to follow these lives, these personalities. He is not trying to make a statement about Britain, but waiting to see what emerges over time.
"I told him that I think that the most potent issue today is the argument about family values and whether that means anything in a country where 40 per cent of children live in single-parent families and there is urban poverty to an extent you would scarcely believe. If his film is to be contemporary and cutting-edge then that is what it must deal with, and he is laying the groundwork for that."
Does he think that interest may wane in his own subjects as they enter middle age? "I doubt it. Getting older is another part of life we all have to cope with, so there is no reason for us not to wanting to see how others are coping. My own life has been frankly tumultuous over the past few years."
He refers to a divorce and a new marriage; at 59 he is the proud father of a six-week old baby boy. The beautiful apartment in London's Little Venice is rented for the duration of his new film's shoot, and he can't wait for his wife and baby to join him from their home in Los Angeles. He's working on an adaptation of the Robert Harris novel Enigma starring Dougray Scott and the increasingly pregnant Kate Winslet.
For all his Hollywood fame, the 7Up series has, he says, kept him grounded in reality and in touch with life in Britain. He has no regrets about having made such a commitment. "It's one of the best-known documentaries in the history of the form, and it's been the signature piece of work of my whole life."
So would he like to be able to start again? "Absolutely not! It's a young man's game because it's a lifetime's work. Someone said to me that my obligation is to outlive them all, and then I may die."
'7Up 2000' will be broadcast on Thursday, 9.35pm, BBC1Reuse content