Michael Apted, film director, 1941-2021

I first met Michael Apted in St Petersburg in 1989, where he was making a documentary about a Russian rock star. Granada wanted to internationalise his Up documentaries that tracked a cohort of seven-year-old British children through their lives, which critics have described as among the best films ever made. I was living in Moscow, working with the Russian director to find Soviet seven-year-olds. So we went to Michael for tips.

The baronial mansion where Michael, who has died aged 79, was staying seemed especially glamorous during those spartan Russian days. It was my first TV job, and our first meeting with an A-list Hollywood director, but his message was down to earth: never lose the formal interview that gives the Up series its backbone. It was then fashionable to interview people while they did something else, but Michael urged us to keep to the principle of the head shot; the interviewee’s eyes were critical. This was true to Up’s spirit, which was based on the Jesuit dictum “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”. It was also typical of Michael’s authentic unfussy style which, strange as it may seem, is what also attracted him to the James Bond producers of The World is Not Enough.

Born in 1941, he grew up in Essex, the shy son of an insurance broker. After the City of London school, he read history at Cambridge and on graduation joined Granada as a researcher for its current affairs programme World In Action. “My parents were mortified,” he once said. “They wanted me to be a solicitor.” The show became Michael’s launch pad.

Tasked to make a film of Britain’s gaping class chasms, the resulting fast-turnround project became a longitudinal series only after a chance meeting in the Granada canteen. A senior executive mused it would be nice to see how the children were doing. Michael agreed. As casually as that, he re-embarked on a project that engaged his whole life.

Jackie, Lynn and Sue sitting on a slide, aged 7, in ‘Seven Up!’, the first of Michael Apted’s critically acclaimed documentary series broadcast in 1964 © ITV/Shutterstock
The ‘28 Up’ documentary, broadcast in 1984, shows Jackie, Lynn and Sue sitting on a sofa at the age of 28 © ITV/Shutterstock

Surprisingly Michael was never precious about the Russian or South African versions that I helped produce. His role was never formalised. Instead, he was a godfather, I suppose, always sending on the praise television bigwigs sent to him, which I then used as leverage to get the next instalment commissioned. He was unfailingly generous — not a common industry trait.

We once gave an Up masterclass at a UK film festival. Moderated by Dick Fontaine, head of documentaries at the National Film and Television school, it had a prime slot in the largest venue. I was terribly nervous of letting Michael down. He was used to the attention, of course, and was then president of the Director’s Guild of America, a post he held for six years. Even so, we went through what we were going to say with copious prompts on index cards. Michael, always a true gent, also placed me mid-stage between him and Dick, although it was clearly his masterclass.

There has been some criticism that of the 14 original British kids only four were girls. Michael regretted this in hindsight. Yet his subsequent mainstream films may have been a way of compensating, as it was their female leads that garnered Oscar attention, be that Gorillas in the Mist or Coal Miner’s Daughter. He relished drama and said a woman’s emotional life was more dramatic than a man’s.

Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist, directed by Michael Apted, which was nominated for five Oscars © Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock
Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for her lead role in Coal Miner’s Daughter © The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

I saw Michael whenever there was the chance, so the occasions may seem outlandish listed here: on a Los Angeles beach, where he was playing with the third of his four children, John; over lunch with Paige, his widowed third wife, on a sunny Moscow rooftop; and with my three-month-old daughter Eva, at his Soho Square office when he was editing The Chronicles of Narnia. Michael had just learnt that the film, shot in 2D, was to be launched in 3D. Panic! He had picked Eva up when the call came in from Los Angeles. To my astonishment, he spoke at length but didn’t put Eva down.

Michael was so clever, talented and interesting; also so generous and kind. Everyone who knew him will miss him. Although some say that Up launched reality television, I believe that is wrong. Unlike most reality TV, which is manipulated, there were no frills or tricks, nor even commissioned music. Instead, it was a simple dish of interview and actualité. Of course, it was skilfully crafted and paced, and the cumulative effect of each seven-year instalment was mesmerising. But it was documentary at its best. Michael once said: “It will be something that I gave to television — no one will ever take that away.” Fittingly, the last film he made was the latest UK instalment 63 Up, screened in 2019. Michael, ever curious and engaged, would have loved to do the next one.

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