Michael Apted: Lifetime achievement

Seven Up is the most remarkable documentary series in television history. Nearly 50 years after he started the project, its director, now 71, is back with the latest instalment

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Sissy Spacek won an Academy Award for her part in the Michael Apted film Coal Miner's Daughter. And Sigourney Weaver and Jodie Foster have both been nominated for Oscars after appearing in movies made by the Essex-raised director, whose work for Hollywood has been notable for its women protagonists. Apted only wishes he had taken a more female-friendly approach when going about the project which, for all his success in Tinseltown, has defined his career – the remarkable documentary series Seven Up, which returns to television next month.

When Seven Up was first broadcast in 1964, it transfixed Britain. "There's absolutely no question that it was revolutionary," said the award-winning documentary-maker Roger Graef this week. "It was the first reality television programme in some ways."

It was also pretty much the first thing that Apted worked on, as a 22-year-old newly arrived in the television industry from Cambridge University, and it has become central to his life for the past 49 years. But it still irks him that out of the 14 children he selected for what is possibly British television's most important social experiment, only four of them were women.

Because of the nature of this extraordinary series, Apted – who never expected Seven Up to become almost a lifetime's work – can work only with the subjects he first chose in 1964. And the lack of girls in the original series has meant that it has struggled to reflect the feminisation of British society in the succeeding half-century, which the director has described as "one of the biggest revolutions in my lifetime".

He has accepted it was a mistake, but it is one that he can explain in terms of the British society of the time. "In 1964, if you'd said that a woman would be prime minister in [a few] years' time, people would have thought you were barking mad. I mean the role of women in society in the early Sixties in England was shocking," he told a British Film Institute audience in 2005.

Nonetheless, Seven Up is widely recognised as a masterpiece of film-making and has spawned similar formats in 13 countries from Australia to Russia. Apted long ago emigrated to America but is happy to acknowledge the prominence that Seven Up deserves in his filmography. "Seven Up's been a signature piece for me," he once told this newspaper. "I doubt I'll ever do anything as important again. And to think that it was the first job I ever did is unbelievable."

Apted has also owned up to the imbalance of the series. "It was clearly loaded from the very beginning," he has said. This was because the organisation behind the idea, Granada, was then "a very left-wing radical company" and determined to make a programme that highlighted the extreme inequalities in a country still obviously riven by class. Seven Up was led by "a very clear agenda which has kind of haunted me ever since".

Apted, a cub researcher for director Paul Almond, was "sent to the very rich schools and the very poor schools in London" to find suitable participants, and another subject was plucked from a Liverpool children's home. There was a distinct lack of representation of the type of middle-class childhood that Apted himself had experienced in the suburbs of Essex. His father Ronald worked in insurance and, like many middle-class women of her time, his mother Frances stayed at home. After gaining a scholarship to the 500-year-old City of London School, Apted began to develop his observational instincts. "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."

His parents were hoping he would enter the legal profession; when Apted won a place at Downing College, Cambridge, he dutifully elected to study law – "as a concession". "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."

Granada in those days was no ordinary television company. It was here he met radical figures such as Tim Hewat, the editor of the then fledgling World in Action investigative strand, which was challenging the detached and patrician tone of the BBC's Panorama. Apted was so excited by his new surroundings – "a very, very hot place to be" – that he remembers the BBC as being "firmly asleep" by comparison.

The decision to polarise the child subjects was a great success. Even the class-conscious audiences of the Sixties watched in bemusement as John, Charles and Andrew, three Kensington prep school boys, sang "Waltzing Matilda" in Latin. Andrew then told the camera how much he enjoyed reading the Financial Times, a scene that Graef remembers to this day. "It was devastating, the contrast between rich and poor and the attitudes," he said.

The original documentary was designed as a one-off and the decision to make a follow-up came at the last moment. Apted had originally found his 14 children in three weeks and then had to track them all down and persuade them to go back on camera, just as they were entering adolescence. He recalls the film, which he directed himself, as "very difficult to make and embarrassing to do", and the result was "spotty, monosyllabic". Yet it says much about Apted's skills of persuasion that all 14 teenagers agreed to take part.

It has not been an easy process to shepherd the Seven Up children through a life on film. Four have dropped out. Charles, one of the prep school boys, did when the project hit 21 and has not returned, though he is now a film-maker himself. Peter dropped out at 28 after he lost his teaching job because of a tabloid backlash that followed critical comments he made about Margaret Thatcher on the programme.

Some of the less affluent subjects have objected to Apted's commentary on their lives, highlighting differences in their perception of success and that of a Hollywood director whose films include Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist and the Bond movie The World Is Not Enough.

But Apted has bonded with his subjects so that they "have become like a part of my family". Tony, a working-class boy who cherished ambitions to become a jockey but later switched horses to become a cab driver, has said: "It's almost as if we owe him rather than he owes us."

One interviewer said that Apted had "the face of a medieval saint" and he clearly has a patience to match. Even allowing for his admission that Seven Up's value as a social document has been "impaired" by the lack of coverage of female emancipation and the growth of the middle classes, his achievement his regarded with awe by his peers. Brian Woods, a leading documentary-maker, said: "To have a film series that spans the entire lifetimes of a dozen men and women offers an extraordinary opportunity to dissect the culture of the UK over the past 50 years. People often talk about the 'golden age' of documentary. I don't believe any such age exists, though Seven Up is almost certainly the greatest documentary series ever."

The Seven Up children are now 56 but Michael Apted has always been 15 years older. At 71, he might be wondering how many more instalments he can manage. Over the years, the participants have become familiar to viewers of several generations. They are almost like old friends.

"Mike Apted has achieved that elusive goal for all documentaries, which is for people to remember it long after it has been shown," said Graef. "It has entered our collective consciousness."

A Life In Brief

Born: Michael David Apted, 10 February 1941, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

Family: Son of Frances and Ronald Apted, who worked for an insurance company. Has two sons from his first marriage; now married to the writer Dana Stevens.

Education: Attended City of London school before gaining a degree in law and history from Cambridge.

Career: After a traineeship at Granada Television, he worked as a researcher on Seven Up in 1964, and has been involved ever since. His films include Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist, The World Is Not Enough and Enigma.

He says: "To me, what's moving about Seven Up is everybody has a story and every life is sort of heroic."

They say: "Seven Up is almost certainly the greatest documentary series ever." Brian Woods, director