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Reality TV Meets Social Experiment In '63 Up'


It is the original reality TV, a long-running social experiment and one of the most ambitious documentaries ever produced. Starting with "Seven Up," filmmaker Michael Apted has followed a group of British children from across social strata every seven years since they were 7. Tim Greiving reports on the latest, "63 Up."

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: In 1963, Michael Apted was 22, studying law at Cambridge. But he really wanted to be a filmmaker. He made a few documentaries at school. Then landed a job as a researcher on a new film being made about Britain's future directed by a Canadian.

MICHAEL APTED: He knew nothing about documentaries, so I had to educate him in it.

GREIVING: "Seven Up!" took 14 kids - boys and girls, rich and poor - and interviewed them about education, wealth, race and what they'd be doing when they grew up. Tony Walker wanted to be a jockey.


TONY WALKER: I want to be a jockey when I grow up. Yeah, I want to be a jockey when I grow up.

GREIVING: The governing idea was an old Jesuit motto. Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man. When he was 7, Walker was a poor kid from London's East End. He did not wind up being a jockey but became a cab driver, as he told me from London.

WALKER: Everyone suffers the same slings and arrows. We all go bald. We also argue with our wives. We also have to work out. We all go bring up families in the same pressurized sort of way. But the only thing is - when you see it from a young child going through, everyone can identify with what human beings have to do.

GREIVING: Walker has been in every "Up" film. And Apted himself took over as director for the second documentary. Even though he broke into Hollywood - directing "Coal Miner's Daughter" and even a James Bond film - he continued to visit these kids every seven years. He says it wasn't tough to get them to participate.

APTED: Not really because they all wanted to do it. I mean, they were stars. The show was incredibly popular. And I didn't treat them badly.


NICK HITCHON: When I grow up, I'd like to find out all about the moon and all that.

GREIVING: Nick Hitchon was the farmer's kid from the Yorkshire Dales when he was 7. Today, he's an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And he says he's not sure he's always been accurately represented by the edited clips in Apted's films.

HITCHON: He's making TV. He wants to make good TV. And anything that would get in the way of that is going to be sacrificed in a hurry. So it's always been the case that if I said something really embarrassing, he would use it. I'm not saying that to be horrible about it. That's just the way things are.

GREIVING: Michael Apted doesn't think he's been unfair to his subjects.

APTED: I never lied to them. If I got that feeling, though, they had made a mistake saying this and it's not particularly healthy thing for them to have said on television, then I certainly didn't put them through it and make them a laughingstock in the country. I mean, you know how wicked television can be.

GREIVING: Every film since the first has debuted on British TV. More and more over the years, Apted has let his subjects speak not just about what's happening in their lives but what they think about being in these films. In "63 Up," Jackie Bassett says she thought Apted once had a real blind spot when it came to women.


JACKIE BASSETT: When we were younger, I kept thinking - why is he asking me questions about marriage and men? And why is he not asking me questions about how the country is?

APTED: Do you think you've settled down too young?

BASSETT: No, I've married, and we do things together.

But I felt that you treated us as women totally different. And I didn't like it.

GREIVING: Cab driver Tony Walker thinks the project has been fair.

WALKER: I've always embraced it. And my character shines through more than you would do if you didn't embrace it. So I always came out with any adverse things that was happening. I trust him with my life.

GREIVING: And Nick Hitchon, too, keeps coming back, even though Apted's camera has watched as his first marriage fell apart and his career as a nuclear physicist got sidelined. He was diagnosed with throat cancer just before his "63 Up" interview. He says the film project has been intense.

HITCHON: And, you know, it's very uncomfortable. But people seem to think it's important, and the fact that it makes me uncomfortable and, sometimes, very unhappy doesn't mean I should stop doing it.

GREIVING: Out of the original 14, 11 participated in "63 Up." One died just after the last film, and two have dropped out. Michael Apted, who's 78 now, doesn't know what the future holds for the "Up" series.

APTED: It's a question that I won't have to answer because the question is if I drop dead - which is not unlikely, actually, between now and the next seven years - it'll be something that I gave to television. No one will ever take that away from me. But I don't know. I don't want to think about it, really.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: This has been a glimpse of Britain's future.

GREIVING: Every "Up" film since the very first one has ended with this music, which seems even more appropriate now that the participants are considering their mortality.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.