The Up documentaries have emerged as one of the most enduring, popular and critically-acclaimed film series in the history of the medium. This fascinating portrait of 14 Britons shows us their lives at seven-year intervals, running the gamut from seven-year-old optimism and energy to the most recent, 49 Up (2005), which showed us middle-aged people facing down mortality, illness and the deaths of parents.
What many don’t realize is that this film phenomenon has Montreal roots. Though the series has become associated with British filmmaker Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, The World is Not Enough), in fact, his role in the making of the first entry, 7 Up, was as a junior researcher. It was Montreal director Paul Almond who co-conceived, wrote and directed the first entry, which aired to rave reviews on British TV in 1964, setting off a barrage of media interest in the precocious, witty and often poignant seven-year-olds who were chosen for the project.
“There really wasn’t a negative review among the newspapers,” Almond, now 80, recalls. “There was unanimous praise for it and the Granada TV show World in Action, which first aired 7 Up, chose to rebroadcast the program on Christmas Eve, again winning strong ratings.”
Almond says that when he and the show’s producer Tim Hewitt came up with the idea for 7 Up, they had no plans to update it every seven years. But Almond confirms that a huge part of the original impetus for the program was to analyze Britain’s class hierarchy. “There was a Labour government in power at the time and there was a lot of talk of taxing the rich and levelling the playing field,” he recalls. “But I was Canadian, and Hewitt was Australian, and as outsiders, we could see the class system still had an extremely strong hold on British culture and society. Over a couple of pints in a pub, Hewitt remembered that old Jesuit maxim, ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’ We decided to choose a group of seven-year-olds from both sides of the class divide, and explore what their attitudes were.”
At that time, Almond had taken leave from the CBC and was filming theatrical plays for British TV, when he and Hewitt managed to sell the Granada station on their 7 Up concept. (The title, which evokes the soft drink, came at the insistence of a Granada executive, and was not his or Hewitt’s idea.)
Almond says he had two researchers, Apted and Gordon McDougall, find 20 girls and boys – all aged seven – from across Britain, from upper and working class families. Of those, Almond chose 14 who would appear in the final 45-minute cut. Almond says he was most taken with the group and got to know them through the interview process (his voice can be heard, Canadian accent and all, asking the questions in the film). The children’s responses were alternately troubling and endearing, from one girl who says she’d rather not get to know any black people to an orphan who, when asked if he thinks he’ll go to university later in life, responds that he doesn’t know what university is. Almond says the child who insists he wants to go to Kenya to help poor people stays with him most strongly: “Those moments of humanity were incredibly touching.”
Almond also argues that his Canadian background did play a role in the distinct style of 7 Up. “True to stereotype, the British really were very anal retentive. I didn’t have a script written beforehand, which really seemed to throw them. As well, I wanted the camera to be entirely hand held during the playground sequences, to capture the perspective of the children. That was something I’d picked up from watching NFB documentaries and the CBC, which had already been using hand-held camera techniques. The crew was most uncomfortable with that. I had to insist and tell them that I would take the heat for it if there were any questions about it.”
After 7 Up, Almond returned to Quebec where he went on to leave an indelible mark on Canadian film history, writing and directing a trilogy of unusual, critically-acclaimed films (Isabel, The Act of the Heart, Journey) which starred his then-wife Genevieve Bujold. Long Montreal-based, Almond has since retired from filmmaking and moved to Malibu, California, where he now lives but a half mile from his ex-wife Bujold, who remains a close friend. He has just penned his first novel, The Deserter (McArthur & Co.), a historical adventure romance inspired by one of his own relative’s stories. Like thousands of fans, he loyally follows the ongoing adventures of the British children he chose almost 50 years ago.
“I love the series,” he says, though he confesses to cringing through some of the questions posed by Apted, the director who has crafted the remaining instalments. Almond says he was “greatly saddened” when two of the upper-class men suspended their involvement in the ongoing series, apparently sensing that they were being set up as rich bad guys as part of the film’s class-conscious thesis.
“Despite that, it remains a truly great documentary series,” Almond states. “It is clearly one of the most famous and enduring that’s ever been put on film.”
Paul Almond will present 7 Up on Wednesday, Nov. 17 at 2 pm at the Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc), and answer audience questions after the screening. That evening, he will be signing copies of The Deserter at a book launch at Victoria Hall. For an invitation to the book launch, call Victoria Hall at 514-989-5226.