In the mainstream, show-business world – scripted movies and TV shows and such – Michael Apted’s legacy is impressive.
Apted – who died Thursday at 79 – directed a wide range of movies, from James Bond to Loretta Lynn, from a John Belushi comedy to a William Hurt mystery. He directed cable dramas, including “Masters of Sex” (which he also helped produce) and “Rome.”
But for many people, he did something far more important: He gave us “7 Up” and all its sequels, pulling us into the lives of Tony Walker (shown here) and others..
Roger Ebert called this “the noblest project in cinema history.” The New Yok Times called it “the most profound documentary series in the history of cinema.” I call it masterful.
Certainly, Apted’s top movies are impressive. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – with Sissy Spacek winning an Oscar as Lynn – is superb. “Gorillas in the Mist” is another story with a real-life heroine. Others films include Belushi’s “Continental Divide,” Hurt’s “Gorky Park” Vanessa Redgrave’s “Agatha” and Pierce Brosnan’s third Bond film, “The World Is Not Enough.”
The remarkable thing is how different those six are. Three center on women, three on men. Three are based on true stories, three aren’t. The settings range from Russia to Rwanda. There’s a comedy, a mystery, an adventure and three dramas, one of them with lots of country music.
These movies differ from each other – and differ vastly from the “Seven Up” series.
That began with a British TV documentary. Apted, then a young researcher, helped choose 14 seven-year-olds (10 boys, four girls). The film focused on the differences between working-class and upper-class kids, when it came to hopes, dreams and ambitions.
It was a good idea, but later someone suggested a better one: Go back to those same kids, seven years later; compare their views and lives now.
Apted took over as director and continued every seven hears, reachhig “63 Up” in 2019. In the U.S., the project kept changing homes – Showtime, PBS, arthouse theaters, Britbox; the quality remained.
Yes, the original “Seven Up” view persisted: For that generation of English kids, class was crucial; the upper-class kids breezed to much easier lives.
More interesting, however, were the changes that emerged.
Nick Hitchon had been painfully shy. He grew up on a farm, went to a one-room school, had trouble talking on camera. He went on to be an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin.
Tony Walker was the opposite, talkative and energetic. He wanted to be a jockey … then became a successful taxi driver. Eventually, he and his wife had a second home in Spain.
Neil Hughes became a college drop-out, sometimes homeless and agitated. Eventually, he began a long string of political campaigns, some of them successful.
Bruce Balden was determined to help kids who lacked his privileged education. He was a teacher in Bangladesh and in the East End of London. Later, however, that changed; he taught at a prestigious school that has been around for more than 10 centuries, molding England’s elite.
These are fascinating lives. Michael Apted brought them to us with subtle skill.