Michael Apted, the acclaimed British documentarian behind the film Seven Up and its successors, says he's long regretted not choosing more girls for his series following the lives of ordinary Britons.

'I’m not there to expose them in any way. I just want to find out how they’re thinking, what makes them tick' —Michael Apted

Begun in 1964, the series initially dipped into the worlds of 14 children, all white and 10 of them male. He has revisited their lives every seven years, in the subsequent films 14 Up, 21 Up, 28 Up, etc.

Apted has been criticized for the lack of racial diversity in the series, but points out that his choice reflected the reality in Britain in 1964. However, he said he would have relished recording the change in the status of women since the first film.

"It always pains me that I missed that story," he said in an interview with CBC’s Q cultural affairs show.

Apted, whose directing credits also include Coal Miner's Daughter and the James Bond classic The World is Not Enough, was just 22 years old when he took on the first documentary in the series.

"It was a one-off film. It was a rather a brilliant idea by people who were running a show called World in Action, of having a look at the English class system in 1964 by just getting a group of seven-year-old children from different social backgrounds and asking them questions, rather than getting politicians or economists," he recalled.


In Seven Up, Jackie, Lynn and Sue are seven years old in 1964. In the latest film, they are 56. (First Run Features)

Apted had just three weeks to find the children and three weeks to shoot the documentary, in which he asks the children about their lives, hopes and dreams. Though not planned as a long-term series, a few years later someone suggested he revisit the 14 children — as "spotty, monosyllabic teens" — and a film franchise was born.

The original participants are now 56 and Apted’s latest instalment — 56 Up, the eighth in the series is screening in Toronto ahead of its theatrical release in January.

Consistent focus in each instalment

His relationship with the 14 has changed over the years, Apted said, but his style has remained consistent. He focuses on their faces and on conversations about their lives. 

"It’s been a hell of ride for them. They started out in all innocence and then found themselves in a middle of a juggernaut," he said.

"I’m not there to trip them up. I’m not there to expose them in any way. I just want to find out how they’re thinking, what makes them tick."

Looking back on the series, which has been popular worldwide, Apted says he still finds it striking how class and socio-economic status continue to play a role in people's lives.

"Looking at the film, you could say that a certain group of people have fairly narrow visions of the future and what is possible and other people’s lives are sort of planned out," he said.

56 Up opens at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Friday.