If you love thought-provoking documentaries, the POV series on PBS is a showcase for great independent filmmakers, says Simon Kilmurry, executive producer of POV. He also notes among the many superb films airing on POV last season, nine were nominated for News and Documentary Emmy awards. This season, among the best contemporary documentary films they have to offer is “56 Up.” It is the eighth installment of Michael Apted’s “Up” series filmed around England, “certainly one of the finest achievements in the history of documentaries,” according to Kilmurry.
It is a fascinating, multi-era slice of life film. Airing Oct. 14 as part of the PBS Indies Showcase, “56 Up” continues the landmark documentaries that began 49 years ago when a British television team interviewed a group of seven-year-old English school children from diverse backgrounds. The kids were asked about their lives and their dreams for the future. Michael Apted, a researcher for the original film, went on to become a prominent director, yet was dedicated to the spirit of the documentary. He returned to the group every seven years to follow up with the “children” and film them at ages 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and now at age 56.
We caught up with Apted during the semi-annual Television Critics Association’s interview panel for PBS. The former president of the DGA is the award-winning director-producer of blockbuster films Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, and The World is Not Enough, but he is equally as proud of his “Up” documentaries. Apted calls the “Up” series a “study of characters, unique in the history of film. It’s the raw history of a society covering the second half of the 20th Century and going into the 21st Century.”
Apted started with “7 Up” in 1964, then it evolved organically. “It was a simplistic look at British class society through the eyes of the children. Then we said ‘Let’s see what happened to them,’ and we did ‘14 Up.’ There has been a great universal truth and discovery over the years.”
Reflecting the universal appeal of the “kids” profiled in the films is Tony Walker, who was an energetic working class kid at seven, and still retains that boyish enthusiasm as a London cabbie at 56. Although some in the original group have dropped out of the films, Walker says he “loves participating. I can see my life story. My dreams, marriage, kids coming along, my mom and dad passing. Sometimes it’s too sensitive, but I’m a very proud member of the series.” He’s also proud that over the years audiences have seen him go from his hard “low income, hand-me-downs” life to “what I would consider a successful family and financial life with my wife and I working very hard to achieve. I may not have had an academic education, but I had the motivation of ambition and a streetwise education that worked for me.”
Talking with Walker, he reminded me of all the hard working everyday heroes who strive for a better life to take care of their families. His wife and daughter were with him and I was happy to take the family to Universal Studios Hollywood when Tony had a day off from his interviews. Strolling through the Universal gates, the smile and the spring in his step reminded me of Walker at seven.
Recalling the old saying “Give me the child when he is seven, and I will give you the man,” Walker agrees that “you can see the exuberance that’s pouring out of me at seven, and my characteristics now are no different.”
He loved being part of Hollywood that day at Universal, and he’s always happy when people recognized him from the “Up” films. Driving his London taxi he’s had famous people as fares. “Last year I picked up Johnny Depp, Robert Downey, and others. And then some people get in my taxi and they ask me for my autograph. I love the attention, but it’s a funny situation to be in when you are just a regular guy like me.”
Regarding doing more “Up” films, Apted says, “I think we’ll keep it going as long as we’re above ground.” Tune in for a great slice of life.