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Michael Apted - An Obituary

Michael Apted – Film and television director

Born February 10, 1941; died January 7, 2021


 Michael Apted, who has died aged 79, was the driving force behind one of the most remarkable TV programmes ever made. Apted directed all but one of the Up series of documentaries, which has followed the lives of fourteen people over the last half century from when they were seven-years-old. 


Working as a researcher on Paul Almond’s original film, Seven Up! (1964), Apted helped choose the participants from across the social spectrum. Taking over the reins as director of 7 Plus Seven (1970) and all subsequent films, Apted drove a social experiment with an empathy that enabled each of the programme’s subjects to talk freely. 


With the programme’s participants now reaching pensionable age, Apted is responsible for an ever-expanding piece of living history that has evolved into a vital portrait of life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.


Even without Up, Apted’s prolific career in film and television marked him out as a director of versatility and flair. As with Up, he was no auteur imposing his own vision on the world, but instead let the characters lead the way. This approach began on early work at Granada TV directing a run of episodes of Coronation Street (1967), where the ensemble cast’s strong women ruled the roost. It continued on ex Corrie writer Jack Rosenthal’s charming sitcom, The Lovers (1970), starring Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox, through to several editions of Play for Today (1972-1977). 


Apted’s cinema career began with The Triple Echo (1972) starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed. In Hollywood, Apted directed Loretta Lynn biopic, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), for which Sissy Spacek won a best actress Oscar. Another biopic, Gorillas in the Mist (1988), starred Sigourney Weaver as conservationist Dian Fossey, and charted her plight to save endangered apes in Africa. More recently, Apted oversaw Pierce Brosnan era James Bond film, The World is Not Enough (1999). 


For television, Apted directed episodes of Rome (2005), and Masters of Sex (2013-2016), working as a producer on the latter. In a very different television climate to the one he started out in, these were as filmic as anything else he’d facilitated on more than 100 directing credits across both mediums.


While the Up series remains Apted’s greatest achievement, he went on record to say the children could have been chosen with more care. His one regret about the programme, he said, was including just four female participants. The knock on effect of this, whether conscious or not, was a focus on women characters at the centre of many of his films.


Michael David Apted was born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire to Francis (nee Thomas) and Ronald Apted, and raised in Ilford, Essex. He attended City of London School before studying law and history at Downing College, Cambridge. He began his TV career at Granada, where his six month stint as a researcher led him to work on Seven Up!, originally intended as a one off for the channel’s current affairs strand, World in Action.


Coronation Street and The Lovers followed, with Apted developing a fertile create relationship with Rosenthal. This saw them collaborate on works such as amateur football drama, Another Sunday and Sweet F.A. (1972) for ITV Sunday Night Theatre. The pair later made post-war schoolyard romance, P’Tang Yang, Kipperbang (1982), the first feature film screened by the nascent Channel Four.


Apted was a master of the one-off TV drama, racking up six Play for Todays, eleven ITV Playhouses and contributions to several other strands. These included works by Colin Welland, Alun Owen, Howard Brenton, Simon Gray and Stephen Poliakoff. 


Apted’s second feature was Stardust (1974), a sequel to That’ll be the Day starring real life pop star David Essex in a look at the self destructive excesses of fame. Gangster movie The Squeeze (1977), and Agatha (1979), starring Vanessa Redgrave as writer Agatha Christie, followed, With the Up series by now having reached 21 Up (1977), Apted’s eclecticism proved to be a strength.


Apted’s skills as a documentary researcher were a boon when exploring Appalachian culture for Coal Miner’s Daughter. It gave the film its sense of authenticity, much as it did with Gorillas in the Mist. Other standouts included the Dennis Potter scripted Gorky Park (1983), Nell (1994) starring Jodie Foster, World War Two code breaking drama Enigma (2001) with Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010). 


Documentaries include Bring on the Night (1985), which followed former Police vocalist Sting preparing his first solo concert, and The Fifa 2006 World Cup Film: The Grand Finale (2006), narrated by Pierce Brosnan. Apted served as a governor with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and from 2003 to 2009 was president of the Directors Guild of America.


Despite his move to Los Angeles, Apted never let go of Up. By the time 63 Up (2019) appeared, he and his subjects had long become equals in a series that in part defines the various times in which both the programme and its director lived. 


Apted is survived by his third wife, Paige Simpson, his son Jim, from his first marriage to Jo Apted, his son John, from his second marriage to Dana Stevens, and his daughter, Lily Mellis, from a relationship with Tania Mellis. Another son, Paul, predeceased him in 2014. 

The Herald, January 20th 2021




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