Michael Apted: Director behind Up and The World is Not Enough

The Briton’s long career led to awards and a stint as president of the Directors Guild of America

Apted was perhaps a surprising choice for a Bond film, but his track record in documentaries made him ideal for the job
Apted was perhaps a surprising choice for a Bond film, but his track record in documentaries made him ideal for the job

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” says a Jesuit motto.

Michael Apted, who has died aged 79, was the director of the immensely popular Up series of television programmes – inspired by this motto – which over the years has charted the developing lives of a group of children from seven years old and upwards. Apted sought to verify the truth behind the motto and to answer the question: will a child’s experiences up to the age of seven define their lives as adults?

Beginning in 1964 and revisiting each child every seven years after, the programme had originally been conceived as just a single episode of the investigative current affairs show World in Action, directed by Paul Almond for Granada Television. Apted, a young researcher just out of Cambridge, was hired and given a brief to find a group of 14 children – 10 boys and four girls – from “startlingly different backgrounds”.

Encouraged by the success of the original broadcast, Apted took over the Up series in 1970 and turned it into the seven-yearly series that is now so well known. Of the children who participated in the original programme, the majority have remained. It has traced participants through childhood and into adult life, following them through the ups and downs of their lives in work, in marriage and as parents of the next generation.

Originally envisaged as a political commentary on class, the programme had developed into a piece of cultural anthropology and a possible inspiration for some of the more recent reality TV formats. Apted noted: “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, about growing up, about coming to terms with failure, success, disappointment, about all the things that everybody can relate to.”

Participant Bruce Balden, who as a child at boarding school in Seven Up! already had a social conscience, was later asked in an interview about the central theme of the programme. He replied: “There’s something from the seven-year-old in all of us, you can see that. It certainly was a polemic about class to begin with, but it has become much more human than that with the stories.”

Interviewed in 2019, around the time of 63 Up, and asked about the programme’s importance, Apted responded: “I can’t speak highly enough about the impact of the series. No one had done it, and it was an original idea. It couldn’t be done like this again. We had inspiration and luck to keep going.”

Beyond the world of television, some of Apted’s best work in his prolific film career was motivated by similar unifying themes of biography, documentary and historical fiction. He received early recognition for his first feature, The Triple Echo (1972), a Second World War drama starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, and nominated for a Golden Prize Award at the Moscow International Film Festival.

Perhaps a surprising choice for a Bond film, Apted was hired by producer Michael Wilson to direct The World is Not Enough (1999), starring Pierce Brosnan. Apted’s track record in documentaries made him ideal for the job, as Wilson recalled, “We wanted someone who was a good storyteller.”

On the set of 1994’s ‘Nell’ with Jodie Foster

Amongst many other film projects, Apted went on to direct Amazing Grace (2006), a powerful, moving and award-winning biographical drama that documents William Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade.

Apted received Bafta’s Flaherty Documentary Award for 28 Up and 35 Up. His work on the series also led to a Peabody Award in 2012. He served as president of the Directors Guild of America from 2003 to 2009. He was made a companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George in the Queen’s birthday honours in 2008.

Michael Apted was born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, in 1941 and had latterly lived in Los Angeles, where he died at home. He is survived by his third wife, Paige Simpson, his son James from his first marriage to Jo Proctor, his son John from his second marriage to Dana Stevens and his daughter Lily from his relationship with Tania Mellis. His son Paul, from his first marriage, predeceased him.

Michael Apted, television and film director, born 10 February 1941, died 7 January 2021

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