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CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: The TV pioneer who has given up playing God


There was Tony, the naughty East End boy who dreamed of being a jockey. Little ballerina Suzy, the girl from a wealthy family.

Symon of mixed race who grew up in an orphanage and became a foster parent.

Neil, the budding astronaut and troubled soul who later dropped out of college and lived in a squat. . .

No doubt, as you read this, some of you can now imagine their faces, just a few of the unforgettable characters we saw as children on the ITV documentary series Seven Up! (later Up) and have followed her entire life – remember Lynn the librarian and am-dram actress Sue?

One of the girls, Suzy Lusk (pictured above as a child in the series) refused to participate in the final episode. Apted borrowed a phone and called her so she would think it was someone else. Then I said it was me and she hung up the phone. & # 39;

And without Michael Apted, the filmmaker behind the series, who died last week at the age of 79, we wouldn't have known any of them.

Such was his fascination with ordinary people, and especially with the stories of the British working class, that it may come as no surprise that he was one of the first directors on Coronation Street in the 1960s.

In the Up series, he recorded the complex, layered lives of the personalities selected for the original 1964 show, every seven years in adolescence, adulthood, and well into middle age.

As for the final episode, 63 Up, which aired last year, he said, “It was an attempt to take a long look at English society. The class system needed a kick on the back. & # 39;

But, like his subjects, Apted's own life defied the categories. He lived in Los Angeles and has directed blockbusters including a Bond film, the Oscar-nominated biopic Gorillas In The Mist, and the country epic Coal Miner & # 39; s Daughter with Sissy Spacek – all in all, it's been a long road from the cobbled streets of Corrie.

Apted was a 22-year-old researcher at Granada Television in Manchester when asked to select a selection of children from diverse social backgrounds for a one-off World In Action documentary.

The concept was inspired by the dictum attributed to the Jesuit priest Ignatius Loyola: "Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man" – which means that our characters are formed at an early age.

None of the children confused audience predictions more than Neil Hughes, a shrewd student at a Liverpool school who played chess and hoped to go to Oxford. . . and the moon

None of the children confused audience predictions more than Neil Hughes, a shrewd student at a Liverpool school who played chess and hoped to go to Oxford. . . and the moon

Young Apted attended a prep school in London's Kensington borough, a charity home, a school in the suburbs of Liverpool and two East End schools: "I called the schools and said," Bring me out your most likely candidates. "

I didn't mean the smartest children, but those who wouldn't be intimidated when ten people were standing in a room and staring at them.

“We never had a contract with any of them, never got parental permission. We probably made verbal agreements and the schools agreed, but it was all very casual. Life was easier then. & # 39;

Indeed it was – and an extremely optimistic time with the birth of Beatlemania and the rise of working-class movie stars like Michael Caine and Terence Stamp.

Original director Paul Almond hoped his seven-year-old would have dreams and aspirations beyond her background.

Seven years later, when Apted was now a seasoned TV director, he was asked by Granada to do a follow-up – 14 Up, and went back to see the same kids to find out how their lives and hopes had changed. It was the least successful of the series because most of the teenagers were too inhibited or inarticulate. But a tradition began that would continue every seven years.

The first documentary opened on a day trip at London Zoo. In their interviews, the children were charming, talkative, and open – and the audience loved it. Any idea that this was simply going to be a film about class differences was swept away as individuals showed through.

One of the liveliest was Tony Walker, an East London boy who had spent much of the first day messing with the Posher boys. Tony had dreams of being a jockey and had some professional races in his late teens, but he didn't make it. Undaunted, he made up his mind to become a taxi driver and made 'the knowledge' by humming around London on a moped as he learned the cobweb of the back streets.

Tony's & # 39; naughty Chappie & # 39; personality taught Apted an early lesson while filming the 1977 episode 21 Up.

"When Tony was 21 he was hanging out at the dog track," said the director. "I was convinced that he would be in the slammer by 28."

To exaggerate this side of the young man's character, Apted asked him to drive around the East End and point out infamous places – the pub where the Kray twins murdered a rival, for example.

But Tony's life was very different when he became a devoted family man. An embarrassed apted later said, “I no longer had any expectations of how everyone would turn out. I've given up being God. & # 39;

None of the children confused audience predictions more than Neil Hughes, a shrewd student at a Liverpool school who played chess and hoped to go to Oxford. . . and the moon.

School days became an ordeal in his youth: bullied and fearful, he left Aberdeen University and lived in a London squat before moving to a meetinghouse in the Shetland Islands.

Neil and another of the subjects, Bruce (who dreamed of being a missionary when he was seven) then dug together in London, where Neil became a Lib Dem councilor before moving to Cumbria to work as a lay minister. It is a zigzag life that refutes the series' underlying concept of fate.

One of Apted's regrets about the show was the imbalance between boys and girls. Only four of the participants were female. One of them, headmistress Lynn Johnson, was the first of the group to die in 2013. The library of her elementary school in Poplar, East London is named in her memory.

Tony's "cheeky chappie" personality taught Apted an early lesson while filming the 1977 episode 21 Up. "When Tony was 21 he was on the dog track," said the director. "I was sure he would be in the slammer by 28".

Tony's & # 39; sassy Chappie & # 39; personality taught Apted an early lesson while filming the 1977 episode 21 Up. "When Tony was 21 he was hanging out at the dog track," said the director. "I was sure he would be in the slammer by 28".

Another girl, Suzy Lusk, refused to take part in the last edition.

Apted borrowed a phone and called her so she would think it was someone else. Then I said it was me and she hung up the phone.

She joined another objector, Charles Furneaux, who quit after 21 Up and became a BBC producer himself.

Before Apted did the fourth episode, he also tried calling him – and the couple ended up having an angry argument on the phone. They never spoke again.

Apted's own childhood in London laid the foundation for his straightforward, driven style. "My mother always pushed, pushed, pushed," he said.

She was a housewife and never really exercised the gifts or intelligence that she had. She wanted me to make the best of my life. & # 39;

His parents expected him to become a lawyer and were appalled when he got a job on television after leaving Cambridge.

"It took you ten years to find out that I had a real job."

In the 1970s he went to the movies with The Triple Echo with Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed. His first big hit was the 1980 life story of country star Loretta Lynn, played by Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner & # 39; s Daughter. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards (with Spacek winning best actress). Gorillas In The Mist – via naturalist Dian Fossey – received five nominations in 1988.

A Bond spectacle followed in 1999 with Pierce Brosnan, The World Is Not Enough; Enigma, based on code-busting work at Bletchley Park during World War II in 2001; the life of anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, in 2006; and the acclaimed Michael Sheen television series, Masters Of Sex, ten years later.

But it was the Seven Up! Series that he considered his true legacy. When he finished his last installment last year, he said, “It's the most important thing I will ever do. It's unique in the history of television and film. & # 39;

He could have added that it was literally the work of many lives.

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