In 1964, a documentary called Seven Up! sought to illustrate Britain's entrenched class system through the stories of 14 seven-year-olds. Michael Apted, an assistant on that film crew, ended up expanding the project into a longitudinal series: every seven years, he has directed a new documentary that revisits the characters as they grow. One of the most memorable characters from the series is Tony Walker, a London cab driver. Brooke speaks with Michael and Tony about the 2012 installment of the series, 56 Up.
UPDATE 1/15/2013: Check out our 56 Up web extra to hear selected outtakes from this interview.
Mary Z. Cox - Scarborough Fair
[MUSIC/SOUND OF CHILDREN/UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1964, a British documentary profiled the lives of 14 seven-year-olds. It was called 7 Up.
[7 UP CLIP]:
MICHAEL APTED: There’s Nicholas and Tim, Jackie and her friends.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The 40-minute television broadcast was intended in part to illustrate Britain's entrenched class system, borrowed from the old Jesuit motto:
MICHAEL APTED (NARRATION): Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
Michael Apted, who’s since directed such feature films as Coalminer’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist, was a 22-year-old assistant on that project, which he has since expanded into a stunning longitudinal series. Every seven years, he directs a new documentary that revisits those former seven-year-old, a project known collectively as the Up Series.
In 2012, Apted visited them for the eighth time in the appropriately titled 56 Up. Apted says that for the first installment he was instructed to find children across the socioeconomic spectrum because it seemed the social order might finally be crumbling.
MICHAEL APTED: It was made in 1963-64, at a time when the English society might be changing. You know, we had the rock ‘n roll and we had fashion and great literature and art going on, and maybe the cultural barriers were breaking down. And this was really a look at England, not through the eyes of professionals but through the eyes of seven-year-old children.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of your subjects, a man named Neil, starts out as a bright-eyed would-be astronaut and he grows into a wanderer, a lost soul. In 56 Up, he quotes a line he says is from Albert Camus, that life is what happens when you’re waiting for something else.
MICHAEL APTED: It’s quite a nifty way of looking at life, that you’re not always sure which way it’s going and suddenly it creeps up on you, which I think is really true of everybody. I think that’s one of the lessons, if you can call it that, from the series.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So can you generalize about your subjects? It seems that despite the regrets of some and the satisfactions of others, they’ve all managed to find some kind of equilibrium.
MICHAEL APTED: Yeah, I was surprised by that. I frankly thought the film might be depressing. I thought people would be worried a lot about the state of the nation and fearing the future. But no, it was a much more positive film, I thought, and I really didn’t know until I’d almost done it. Each film tends to have a slightly different tone, and there seemed to be a kind of peacefulness about it -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even Neil, where you didn’t see satisfaction you at least saw a kind of acceptance.
MICHAEL APTED: Yeah, with him a questioning acceptance. I mean, he was pretty rough on me. You know, he told me I really didn’t know anything about him, which is also true.
NEIL HUGHES: There's been tremendous goodwill towards the series, but I’m also aware that I’m not the only participant who wants to set the record straight. For so many millions of people, I’m here wearing my heart on my sleeve, and they think they know absolutely everything about me. I mean - there were countless people writing me saying, “I know exactly how you feel.” And, actually, from those letters, I would say none of them, not a single one of them knew exactly how I was feeling.
MICHAEL APTED: I don’t know really anything about these good souls, except I’ve worked with them for 50 years and I see them a few days every seven years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I appreciated the fact that you let your subjects attack you. In particular, one of the upper class kids, John has likened it to taking a poison pill every seven years. And yet, all but one of the fourteen original participants have stuck with it, if not in every episode.
MICHAEL APTED: It takes some convincing sometimes but the film is very well received wherever it plays and in a way I think we’re all sneaky proud of it, and there’s a loyalty and a trust between us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trust, really? I mean, speaking of John, he said that you had completely distorted him.
JOHN BRISBY: Insofar as the program touches me, I feel it’s a complete fraud.
[CLIPS FROM 7 Up]:
ANDREW BRACKFIELD: I read the Observer and the Times.
CHARLES FURNEAUX: What do you like about it?
JOHN BRISBY: I usually look at the headlines and then read - about them.
JOHN BRISBY: When I leave this school, I’m going to Connaught Court. And then I will be going to Westminster boarding school if I pass the exam. But then we think I’m going to Cambridge in Trinity Hall.
JOHN BRISBY [56 Up]: It all appeared part of some indestructible birthright. What viewers were never told is that my father died when I was age nine, leaving my mother in very uncomfortable financial circumstances and that I got a scholarship to Oxford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you leave that out on purpose?
MICHAEL APTED: No, I didn’t know it, actually, but I mean, I, I still don’t think that really undermines my argument about him. I think he was given a strong, firm guiding hand in life, where a lot of other people in the film weren’t, because he came from a very empowered background.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s play a clip from Symon, who was a foundling at seven. Here he is at 14, talking about what he wants to be when he grows up.
SYMON BASTERFIELD: I was gonna be a film star, but now I’m gonna be an electrical engineer, which is more to reality really.
MICHAEL APTED (NARRATION): By 21, Symon was working in the freezer room of Wall’s Sausages in London.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that says a lot, right? That says he didn’t get close.
MICHAEL APTED: To being a movie star.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or even an electrical engineer. And yet, when we look at Symon’s life, he was a foundling; he’s helping foster children who adore him and his wife. He’s close with his family. He seems to have a profound sense of satisfaction.
MICHAEL APTED: Well, exactly. And I had to learn, in a sense, not to impose my sort of middle class neurosis of success and failure on everybody else, that everybody had their own dream of life. And what Symon did, what Symon learned about, you know, there was other things in life that he wanted to achieve and, as you say, he achieved them perfectly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the things I appreciate so much about the film is, is how you do reveal yourself periodically, and I wonder did you have a cringe or a second thought when you phrased the question to Symon –
MICHAEL APTED (INTERVIEWER): Did you never feel you should be doing better jobs than these? Aren’t you worth more than this?
SYMON BASTERFIELD: No, I haven’t really. I, I suppose I just like hard work, I don’t know.
MICHAEL APTED: I didn’t cringe. I like asking direct questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, what the question implies, that worth is –
MICHAEL APTED: Yes –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - connected to the job.
MICHAEL APTED: Yes. I don’t believe that, and I was interested whether he believed it. And to a certain extent, he did believe it.
SYMON BASTERFIELD: If I’d pushed myself at school, probably I could have done a lot better. [BEEPING SOUNDS]
MICHAEL APTED: Does that give you pause for thought?
SYMON BASTERFIELD: No, that means I was a lazy sod when I was younger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fifty years ago, this was intended to be about the class system. How much did class play a role in how they turned out, in life?
MICHAEL APTED: Well, I think for that generation, quite a lot of class has changed. If I’d started the film 10 years, 15 years later, I think it would have been fairly different. There are still more class/birth issues, I think, in England than in other countries, but I don’t think it’s as, as suffocating as it was. And, you know, one of the big moments for me in the history of the film is when I first brought it to America. I didn’t want to bring it here because Americans won’t understand it, they won’t understand the social context. But anyway, I was persuaded to show it and it came here, and played at the Los Angeles Film Festival and the New York Film Festival and Americans understood it, and I realized that I was doing something different from what I thought I was doing. I wasn’t making a film about the residue of the English political system, as it were. I was making a film about characters, about people, about universal issues, things that we all have to deal with. And that for me was a very freeing movement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of my very favorite characters, and they are characters to me, is Tony.
[FILM HUBBUB/UP & UNDER]
MICHAEL APTED: Tony was brought up in the East End of London.
TONY WALKER: I want to be a jockey when I grow up. Yeah, I want to be a jockey when I grow up!
MICHAEL APTED: At 14, he was already an apprentice at Tommy Gosling’s Racing Stable at Epsom.
MICHAEL APTED (INTERVIEWER): What will you do if you don’t make it as a jockey?
TONY WALKER: Well, I don’t know. If I knew I couldn’t be one, I’d get out of the life.
MICHAEL APTED (INTERVIEWER): And what do you think you would do then?
TONY WALKER: [unintelligible] taxis.
MICHAEL APTED (NARRATION): And by 28, he owned his own cab.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tony, in his early days, is a quintessential scalawag. I understand that you thought he might be the one most likely to end up in jail.
MICHAEL APTED: It didn’t happen but at 21 he was running around dog tracks laying bets for people, and I looked at that and I thought this guy really doesn’t have much chance in life. And so, I played God and, in preparation for if at 28 he was in prison, I took him around the East End of London, or he took me around in his cab, pointing out all the big crime spots. It was an absurd thing to do, but I learned a big lesson from that. I start with a blank page. Just because they said something in 49 that doesn’t mean they have to answer the same question in 56. I just don’t want it to be an update.
But it was that lesson I learned with Tony that was very profound for me and really helped guide me through this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tony, please come in here! Ladies and gentlemen: Tony Walker.
Bravo! Put on the headphones.
TONY WALKER: Hello, America. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when you saw yourself in these films, 50 years, did you recognize yourself?
TONY WALKER: Absolutely, I recognized myself. I mean, I was always a East End boy with me ass hangin’ out ‘me trousers. I’d no guidance, early [unintelligible], my dad was inside and out of prison. But where I was 14, going into the stables, it was quite regimental and all the rough edges of my character were sort of cut and I become what I would consider respectable.
MICHAEL APTED: I must say this is news to me, really, about the effect of being in the stable. So you learn something every minute.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] In the early scenes, when you’re seven, you know, you’re sitting at your desk and you keep looking back and the teacher’s going, “Tony!”
TEACHER: Tony! [unintelligible] don’t turn ‘round again.
TONY WALKER: It’s funny, I’m a London cabbie now and people are still talking behind my back.
And the characteristics I had then at 7, and you look at my characteristics now at 56, nothing has changed, really.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, why did you pick Tony?
MICHAEL APTED: He just seemed an irresistible character. He had a lot of energy, he was funny and I thought he would give the program a good kick up the backside.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Would you pick yourself at age 7?
MICHAEL APTED: No, I don’t think I ever spoke at the age of 7.
So I don’t think I would have qualified.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was your first impression, Tony, of Michael?
TONY WALKER: In 1963, just after the assassination of Kennedy, the cameras came. Consequently, in them days we had shilling pieces, just like a dime that you put in a – the electric meter. Well, my mum had no money at that particular time and Michael and my brother was arguing who was gonna put the shilling pieces in the slot machine to make the electric power for the cameras.
I remember that so clearly.
MICHAEL APTED: Did I put the shilling in the meter or did your brother?
TONY WALKER: You did, Michael.
MICHAEL APTED: Thank God for that.
TONY WALKER: I still remember. You know, it stays with you for the rest of your life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think it changed the course of your life in any way?
TONY WALKER: Not for one moment. I mean, if you got a bit of string and put one straight line, I would be still in a straight line where I’d have ended up now, whether the cameras are there or not.
MICHAEL APTED: I sort of think it’s a testament to the films. I don’t think it’s changed any of their lives. It’s had an effect on them but, you know, I think – you know, they’ve lived the lives that they were going to live.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s play a clip from a 2007 episode of The Simpsons called “Springfield Up.” A filmmaker named Declan Desmond is interviewing Homer and Marge for a longitudinal documentary called “Growing Up Springfield.”
DECLAN DESMOND: Well Marge, you must be proud of your “Homie.”
MARGE: Oh yes, I am so proud, I feel my chest might burst.
[PAUSE] Can you edit that? I don't want to say "chest" in a movie.
DECLAN DESMOND: You said it and it stays.
DECLAN DESMOND: Are you two considering children?
HOMER: (SCOFFS) Kids? No way! You'll never see a couple of rugrats tying me down!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, then the scene suddenly changes to an older Marge and Homer with babies. It’s Lisa and Bart. Lisa - you might hear her pacifier.
HOMER: You better not put this shot after the one where I said I won't have kids. That would be a devastating edit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you would have, right?
MICHAEL APTED: Certainly! I have to put enough of the older stuff in so everybody gets the idea of how these people have grown and changed and whatever and, you know, had great moments when they’ve contradicted themselves or said something funny, or whatever, those moments that lovers of the series always expect to see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any juxtaposition, any choice you made that you regret?
MICHAEL APTED: Well, I always get the chance to put it right, you know, by doing the next one. I mean, as we’ve discussed the Tony fiasco. And I’m sure I’ve made lots of mistakes and behaved insensitively, but whatever rough times we’ve had we’re still, in a sense, bonded like some bizarre family -
- with this thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tony, do you see the series as a kind of photo album?
TONY WALKER: It’s funny. When I get Michael after seven years and he sits me down, it’s like me going to sort of therapy. And I sort of just tell him everything that’s happening in the truthful answer that I give.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you know he was worried about you?
TONY WALKER: No, I don’t know. I trust Michael implicitly, and he knows that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It wasn’t actually quite as exciting as some of the previous films, but maybe in our mid-fifties we just aren’t.
MICHAEL APTED: Well maybe, but I’m sort of not particularly looking for that. You know, it’s like a sort of great Victorian novel, and people move half an inch a year and, you know, it’s the heroism of ordinary life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s something about the fifties that’s really different, but it does seem like everyone has entered a phase where the struggle abates and you just live ‘cause you can see the end of it.
MICHAEL APTED: Well, it’s sort of thrilled me and flabbergasted me that it’s true of this, but I don’t know – and, again, now I’m starting to play God – I don’t know what the future holds, for myself. You know, I’m in my seventies now. I’m panicking about the future. It’s interesting that, you know, there’s a lot of politics in this particular film. They’re all talking about the economic situation a lot, more than any of the other of the films in the Series.
But there was a huge recession in – when they were in their thirties, when we were doing 35 Up but it didn’t matter to them, ‘cause they had their future. But now at 56, an economic recession means a lot. Are their pensions going to go belly up, are they going to have any money left for their retirement and all this? Again, I was thrilled with this one, that it was so positive, but I’m – I’m wondering when we get to 63 and 70 with them, whether they’ll be quite so placid about the future. I’m certainly not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re 15 years older than your subjects.
MICHAEL APTED: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you named an heir?
MICHAEL APTED: No, I mean, Claire Lewis has been with us since 28. She’s as close as I am, maybe closer to some of them than I am, so if I’m pegged out or lost my marbles, she will be the obvious one to carry it on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you hope you could get to –
MICHAEL APTED: Well, I know what I hope. I hope to do 84 Up when I’ll be 99.
And then we’ll cut it quits.
TONY WALKER: We’ll be both going back to the post office, Michael, doing our pension books together, yeah?
MICHAEL APTED: I’m already doing that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL APTED: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tony, thank you too.
TONY WALKER: Thank you. You’re more than welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Apted is the director of the Up Series. Tony Walker has appeared in all eight installments of the Series. We’ll end with these thoughts from two other participants, Nick and Suzy.
NICHOLAS HITCHON: Why is it that we are so annoyed about this program? The idea of looking at a bunch of people over time and how they evolve, that was a really nifty idea.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
It isn’t a picture really of the essence of Nick or Suzy. It’s a picture of everyman. And that’s the value of this.
SUZANNE DEWEY: But then we’re putting ourselves out to be that person [LAUGHS]. I don’t know what happened. I was quite adamant I wasn’t gonna do it. I suppose I had this ridiculous sense of loyalty to it, even though I hate it.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Doug Anderson, with more help from Khrista Rypl. And the show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Ken Feldman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.