Jonathan Cake: Drama out of real lives

Thursday 14 January 2021

The director of the remarkable Up series, Michael Apted, died last week. His casts had more to thank him for than just the work.


In 2003, I was fresh off a Broadway run of Euripides’ Medea when, out of the blue, I got cast in a new pilot for HBO called Marriage. It was written by the late Steven Bochco, who at that point had a fair claim to the title of King of TV. Creator of L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and, er, Doogie Howser, M.D., he had been on a 20-year Midas streak. For a young(ish) English actor dipping his toe into America, it felt like a turning point. It felt like a break.

But nothing about the pilot felt quite as exciting as working with the man attached to direct: Michael Apted. By some distance the grandest director I’d worked with on camera at that point, he was also a bit of a hero to me. If his numerous movies in numerous genres – among them Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, Blink, Agatha and, my favorite, Gorky Park – weren’t enough for one lifetime, there was his meisterwerk, his life’s work, the Up series. A series of documentary episodes, starting with Seven Up! in 1964, and following a group of seven-year-old children through their lives, all the way to 63 Up in 2019.

Roger Ebert, America’s most prominent film critic, called it “the noblest project in cinema history”. Andrew Sarris, who did a lot to build the idea of the auteur in cinema, described it as “clearly the most remarkable nonfiction film project in the history of the medium and officially the most temporally ambitious”. When I was ushered in to meet Michael for the first time in Bochco’s office on the Fox lot, and the series was still a relative baby of 42 Up, I wouldn’t have hesitated to agree.

Seven Up! Jackie, Lynne and Sue at a playground in 1964

“Hello, squire” said the slim, grey-haired chap who got up to shake my hand. He had a remarkably tall, thin face, like an elegant five-story Georgian terraced house. The kind of place where artistic work of great but discrete importance would be going on behind closed curtains. Despite the setting and the nut-brown Californian tan, he seemed to carry a forcefield of Englishness around him, a sort of quietly cloistered calm which immediately made him the most attractive person I’d met in California. Perhaps it was also the bicycle clips.

“So why don’t you, ah, you know. Read. The scenes. With the, uh, actresses. Would that be alright?”

Of course, Michael, happy to. Then began the audition process to find my wife. I should explain that the show had a particular schtick: it all took place in the bedroom of the married couple. Bedroom, bathroom, walk-in closet. And only there.

I read the scenes with dozens of well known actresses. Back then, there was more bifurcation between cinema and TV than there is now, but even then actresses you’ve really heard of showed up. For Bochco and HBO and this daring Euro-inflected comedy of manners, yes. But mostly, I suspected, for Michael. He had won Sissy Spacek the best actress Oscar for Coal Miner’s Daughter in 1981 and continued to put women front and centre in his work when it was commercially risky to do so. In 2010, Michael linked his fascination with female stories to the mistake he felt he made as a 22-year-old researcher on the original Seven Up! to only include four girls among the 14 children. He was happy to say that he grew through the Up series as much as the children did.

“Jonathan,” said Michael, after one very famous actress had left the room, gabbling madly and burying her (I thought) excellent audition under a frenzy of stories about her palsied cat, “What did you think?”

Well, with that casual invitation from the maestro, I was off and running. I started by offering only the most tentative opinions, modestly deferential to my fellow professionals’ skill and bravery during what was, I knew, a brain-boiling process.

“Um, I thought she began really strongly.” 

“Yes?”

“Yes. But did she let that little line fluff perhaps, maybe, take her, ahem…”

“Mmm?”

“You know… out of the scene?”

But soon, as the procession of illustrious ladies continued – any one of whom, under normal circumstances, I would be dancing down Hollywood Boulevard to work with – the inevitable slippage occurred.

I became drunk on my own power.

“Nah,” I sighed, as a tall, freckled, very quiet girl from Boston whom Michael had brought back for a second audition left the room, “I’m afraid I’m not really seeing it. It’s all a bit… minimal.”

“Oh, really?” replied Michael, drily. “I think she’s rather good.”

He ignored my insightful objections. He cast the minimal Bostonian. Fine, I thought. No problem. I’m a professional.

We rehearsed the piece for two weeks like a play, unthinkable for a TV show now. Then we shot it on the Fox lot in LA, in chronological order, similarly unthinkable. I went back to London, worried about whether the magical experience I’d just had would continue into a series, would be successful, would lead to anything. If what I’d experienced was the gravitational force of real life or just the afterglow of the drama. And I wondered, of course, whether I’d ever see Michael again.

Michael knew better than anyone about making drama out of real lives and he was aware that it was problematic. Chosen at the age of seven for what they and their parents – and Apted – thought was a one-off program, the 14 boys and girls of Up lived their lives in its long shadow. In the 56 years between the first episode and the last, some of those children rebelled, left the program, fell out with Michael for trying, as they perceived it, to fit their lives into snapshots that could never represent the full picture of who they were. For his part, Michael knew all too well the truth of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s words about the Up series in a masterly New York Times profile in 2019: “…the kinds of questions he asked them amounted to an existential audit, one that few among us could ever face with equanimity, and even once in seven years was nearly unendurable”

I knew Michael for 49, 56 and 63 Up, and as each one drew closer he would talk and worry about all of the participants he’d shared this bizarre mingling of destinies with; fretting about this one’s involvement, that one’s health, the marital status of another. He had grown old with them, divorced with them, suffered the agony of bereavement with them, wondered, like them, if he’d taken the right path, fulfilled his promise. He went through all their negotiations with happiness, alongside them.

In aging with them, he also changed with them. Neither their lives, nor his, could be contained by a simple narrative: “I had an epiphany.” he wrote in 2000. “I realized, after 20 years on the project, that I really hadn’t made a political film at all. What I had seen as a significant statement about the English class system was in fact a humanistic document about the real issues of life.”

For all the shepherd-esque worries about his flock, Michael had steel. When he was directing, there was a gimlet-eyed precision in his pursuit of the best moment, the most vivid way of telling the story. The question he most frequently asks of the children and adults of the Up series is: “Why?” He’s not afraid to let those terrifying three letters sit there in silence until the interviewee inevitably bows to the demand and picks them up. More often than not, it elicits sudden, electrifying insight.

Michael Apted (seated) with Jackie, Lynn and Sue in 28 Up

But to be asked “Why?” by Michael wasn’t to feel exposed exactly. What kept so many of those children coming back to talk to him every seven years was, I suspect, what enthralled me about him as a director. He listened in a way that made you feel heard. 

Like his Cambridge contemporary Steven Frears, Michael’s astonishing list of films has no auteurish stamp, no definable style. He was equally adept at a biopic of a country music singer from Appalachia (Coal Miner’s Daughter) as he was making a slapstick comedy with Richard Pryor (Critical Condition) or a political documentary about an FBI coverup (Incident at Oglala). This must have stemmed from his training as a documentarian. He felt it was his job to remove his ego, to let the film dictate his direction, not the other way round; to ask the pertinent “Why?” of the material, then do his best to attend to the answer. He directed so many of the greatest actors of the age, but what’s striking is how many of them were known to be – shall we say? – challenging to direct. Dustin Hoffman, Vanessa Redgrave, Gene Hackman (twice!), John Belushi, Laurence Olivier, Richard Pryor, and so many more. Here, his experience with the recalcitrant kids he persuaded to stick with him through the course of a lifetime must have come in handy.

It was impossible for us all – whether me or John Belushi or Tony, the boy who dreams of being a jockey in Seven Up! – not to feel imperceptibly taken care of by Michael. It was his decency, the lightness with which he wore his intelligence, his sudden shouted laughter. His sense of being helplessly marooned, like many men of his age and class, within the limitations of his upbringing, but also with great reserves of strength because of it. His Englishness was the first thing you noticed about him but the last thing that stayed with you. In between, it was his great emotional depth that you sensed most. And he was gloriously emancipated in America, loosened from the bondage of class, his lean face permanently tanned with the look of a man who’d found the place where he could feel most free.

I called him the Christmas before last. “Ah, hello, squire. No, I can’t come to your party, I’m afraid, I don’t drive anymore.”

What if I sent a cab? 

Long pause. “Yeah, go on then. Why not?”

He arrived, thinner than ever, the elegant Georgian facade perhaps showing, if you looked closely, signs of distress around the windows. He sat in our garden reflecting on 63 Up with my mother (87) and me (52). How good the overwhelming majority of the Up participants had seemed compared to the jarring – and, for Michael, troubling – mid-life difficulties they’d endured in their fifties. He eagerly agreed with my mother that things get better in your sixties, including the sex. He thought he’d probably never make another Up, yet he felt proud of having come that far, of them all coming that far, together. From 7 to 63 and, for him, from 22 to 78.

He went to tell a filmmaker how much he’d liked their latest. Then he fell on our treacherous garden stairs. He bounded back up, like a boxer eager to beat the count. “No bother, I fall a lot these days.”

After I’d put him in a cab homewards, I thought of a famous line of Larkin’s from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’: “…this frail traveling coincidence.”

Marriage never got picked up, of course. But the tall, minimal Bostonian did. I was right: in the afterglow of the drama, it was the gravitational force of real life that I was feeling. We were married a year after we finished filming. And now we have two little spin-off shows.

If those children ever have strong enough stomachs to see their mum and dad mostly naked and occasionally simulating sex in a shower (and surely – surely! – they never will), then they could watch that one episode. It’s a chronologically shot, real-time document of their parent’s courtship. I make a good show of acting at the beginning, but frankly by the end I’m just staring, googly-eyed with adoration, barely able to remember my lines.

So, in our small way, me and my wife had an Up experience with Michael. People he chose, futures he set in train, a father figure we returned to.

When he died last Thursday, I thought about him again, the trusted asker of the essential why. The shepherd of the flock that I felt now included our family of four. He was the filmic laureate of the “frail traveling coincidence”, the thin, fragile, skein of human connection. I hope the boys and girls of Seven Up! feel as lucky as I do to have traveled with him.

Photographs courtesy ITV, Britbox and Getty Images