Coming up with ‘Seven Up’

Montreal filmmaker Paul Almond discusses the making of the groundbreaking first film in the documentary series that Roger Ebert called 'an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium.'
November 17, 2010

While the Up documentary series has attained legendary status, most are unaware that the film series began as the brainstorm of a Montreal filmmaker. The films have captivated audiences and critics alike as they revisit the same group of 14 Britons at seven-year intervals.

It was 1964 when Paul Almond co-conceived, wrote and directed Seven Up for British TV with Michael Apted, who has directed the subsequent films in the series. In Montreal to present a special screening of the documentary, Almond confirms that a big part of the inspiration for the first film was Britain’s class divide.

‘There was a labor government in power and there was a lot of talk of taxing the rich and leveling the playing field,’ recalls Almond, now 80. ‘But I was a Canadian, and my producer, Tim Hewitt, was Australian, and as outsiders, we could see the class system had an extremely strong hold on British culture and society.’

Almond says Hewitt remembered the old Jesuit maxim, ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’ Thus, they set about finding ‘a group of seven-year-olds from both sides of the class divide [to] explore what their attitudes were.’

The results were fascinating, often poignant and sometimes just disturbing. One young girl said she wasn’t interested in meeting any black people. And when one poor orphan is asked about going to university, he responds, ‘What’s that?’

Almond says his Canadian background played a key role in the distinct style of Seven Up.

‘I asked the cameraman to take the camera off the tripod and to follow the kids around in the playground,’ he explains. ‘I liked the idea of shooting it from the children’s perspective. That was something I’d picked up while watching NFB documentaries and the CBC, which had already been using hand-held camera techniques.’

Almond went on to make a number of narrative films (including Isabel) with his first wife, Genevieve Bujold. The two have since split but remain close friends. Now retired from filmmaking, he has just written his first novel, The Deserter (McArthur & Co.), the first in an eight-book series. Like thousands of diehard fans, Almond continues to follow the Up series. A recent Channel 4 program, The 50 Greatest Documentaries, put the series at the top of the list, and no less an authority than Roger Ebert called the series ‘an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium.’ 56 Up is expected to begin filming in 2012.

‘It always strikes me how incredible those kids were. And their lives have evolved in fascinating ways. It’s one of the most famous and enduring documentaries that has ever been put on film.’

Paul Almond will present Seven Up today at 2 p.m. at Montreal’s Cinéma du Parc, and will take audience questions after the screening.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.