CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: The television pioneer who gave up playing God

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

Mixed-race Symon, who grew up in an orphanage and became a foster parent.

Neil, the future astronaut and restless 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 some of the unforgettable characters we encountered as children in the ITV documentary series Seven Up! (later Up) and have followed throughout their lives – remember Lynn the librarian and stage actress Sue?

One of the girls, Suzy Lusk (pictured above in the series as a child) refused to participate in the latest installment. Apted resorted to borrowing a phone and ringing it, “so she thought it was someone else. Then I said it was me, and she put the phone down ‘

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

So deep was his fascination with ordinary people and especially the stories of the British working class that it is perhaps not surprising that he was one of the first directors of Coronation Street in the 1960s.

In the Up series, he then retraced the complex and multi-layered lives of the personalities chosen for the original 1964 show, every seven years through adolescence, adulthood and fifties.

As the last opus, 63 Up, screened last year, he said: “It was an attempt to take a long-term view of English society. The class system needed a kick to the rear.

But like his subjects, Apted’s own life has defied categories. He lived in Los Angeles and was the director of blockbusters including a Bond film, the Oscar nominated biopic Gorillas In The Mist, and the country music epic Coal Miner’s Daughter with Sissy Spacek – overall it was away from the cobbled streets of Corrie.

Apted was a 22-year-old researcher at Granada Television in Manchester when asked to choose a selection of children from different social backgrounds for a unique documentary on World In Action.

Apted poses for photographs after receiving the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 2009

Apted poses for photographs after receiving the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 2009

None of the kids confused viewers' predictions more than Neil Hughes, a brilliant student at a Liverpool school who played chess and hoped to go to Oxford.  .  .  and the moon

None of the kids confused viewers’ predictions more than Neil Hughes, a brilliant student at a Liverpool school who played chess and hoped to go to Oxford. . . and the moon

The concept was inspired by the saying, attributed to 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.

The young Apted visited a pre-preparatory school in Kensington in London, a charity house, a school in a middle-class suburb of Liverpool and two schools in the East End: “I called the schools and I says, “Get me out your most likely candidates.”

By that I didn’t mean the smartest kids, but those who wouldn’t be intimidated by having ten people standing in a room looking at them.

“We never had a contract with any of them, we never obtained parental permission. We probably got some verbal agreements and the schools agreed, but it was all very loose. Life was simpler then.

Indeed, it was – and an extremely optimistic period with the birth of Beatlemania and the emergence of working-class movie stars such as Michael Caine and Terence Stamp.

Original director Paul Almond hoped his seven-year-old children would have dreams and aspirations that went beyond their antecedents.

Seven years later, with Apted now a seasoned TV director, he was approached by Granada for a follow-up – 14 Up, returning to the same children to find out how their lives and hopes had changed. It was the least successful of the series, as most of the teens were too inhibited or inarticulate. But he started a tradition that would continue every seven years.

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

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

Apted also directed the 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, which starred Pierce Brosnan (pictured together on set)

Apted also directed the 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, which starred Pierce Brosnan (pictured together on set)

The initial documentary was opened at the London Zoo on a day trip. In their interviews, the kids were charming, chatty, and open – and viewers were delighted. Any idea that this would simply be a class division movie was swept aside, as the individuals shone.

One of the liveliest was Tony Walker, a boy from East London who spent much of that first day messing around with the fanciest boys. Tony dreamed of becoming a jockey and had done some professional racing in his late teens, but he didn’t succeed. Intrepid, he decided to become a taxi driver and got to know him, buzzing around London on a moped as he learned the spider web of the lanes.

Tony’s “cheeky chappie” personality taught Apted a first lesson during the filming of 1977 episode 21.

“When Tony was 21 he was hanging out at the dog track,” said the manager. “I was convinced he would be in the slammer at 28. “

To exaggerate this side of the young man’s character, Apted asked him to drive into the East End pointing to notorious haunts – the pub where the Kray twins murdered a rival, for example.

But Tony’s life turned out to be very different, as he became a dedicated family man. An embarrassed Apted later said, “I stopped having expectations about how everyone was going to be. I gave up being God.

None of the kids confused viewers’ predictions more than Neil Hughes, a brilliant student at a Liverpool school who played chess and hoped to go to Oxford. . . and the Moon.

His schooling became a torment as a teenager: intimidated and anxious, he ended up dropping out of Aberdeen University and living in a London squat, before moving to a Shetland council house.

Neil and another of the subjects, Bruce (who at seven years dreamed of being a missionary), then shared digs together in London, where Neil became a Lib Dem advisor, before moving to Cumbria and working as a lay preacher. It’s a life of zigzags that refutes the notion of fate underlying the series.

One of Apted’s regrets about the show was the imbalance between boys and girls. Only four of the participants were women. One of them, school governess Lynn Johnson, was the first of the group to die in 2013. The library at her primary school in Poplar, east London, is named in her memory.

Tony's 'cheeky chappie' personality taught Apted a first lesson during the filming of 1977 episode 21. 'When Tony was 21 he was hanging out at the dog track,' the director.  `` I was convinced he would be in the slammer at 28 ''

Tony’s “cheeky chappie” personality taught Apted a first lesson during the filming of 1977 episode 21. “When Tony was 21 he was hanging out at the dog trail,” the director said. “I was convinced he would be in the slammer at 28”

Another of the girls, Suzy Lusk, declined to participate in the last episode.

Apted resorted to borrowing a phone and ringing it, “so she thought it was someone else. Then I said it was me, and she put the phone down ”.

She joined another refusenik, Charles Furneaux, who dropped out after 21 Up and became a BBC producer himself.

Before filming the fourth episode, Apted also tried calling him – and the couple ended up arguing furiously on the phone. They never spoke again.

Apted’s own childhood in London sowed the seeds of his direct and determined style. “My mom was pushing, pushing, always pushing,” he says.

“She was a housewife and never really exercised the gifts or the intelligence she had. She wanted me to do my best with my life.

Expecting him to be a lawyer, his parents were dismayed when he found a job on television after leaving Cambridge.

“It took them ten years to realize I had a good job.

He got into the movies in the 1970s with The Triple Echo, starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed. Her first big hit was the 1980 life story of country star Loretta Lynn, played by Sissy Spacek, in Coal Miner’s Daughter. It was nominated for seven Oscars (with Spacek winning Best Actress). Gorillas In The Mist – about naturalist Dian Fossey – won five nominations in 1988.

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

But it was the Seven Up! series that he considered to be his true heritage. As he wrapped up his last installment last year, he said, “It’s the most important thing I’ll ever do. It is unique in the history of television and cinema.

He might have added that it was, literally, the work of many lifetimes.

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