Michael Apted was born in Aylesbury on 10 February 1941, the son of a Norwich Union surveyor. Through scholarships, he was able to attend the City of London School and then go on to read History and Law at Cambridge, where his friends included Trevor Nunn and John Cleese. In 1963 he joined a six-month apprenticeship scheme at Granada TV in Manchester, and stayed with the company for the next seven years. During this rich and fertile period, Apted went from researcher to director and worked on over fifty productions, from early episodes of Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-) to dramas written by Jack Rosenthal, Alun Owen and Colin Welland.
One of Apted's first jobs after completing the training scheme was as a researcher on Granada's flagship documentary series World in Action, where he made his mark with a special edition entitled Seven Up (ITV, tx. 5/5/1964), which charted the fortunes of a group of seven-year-old British children. Such was its success that follow up programmes have been made every seven years since then, with Apted as director, producer and presenter. The latest in the series, provisionally entitled 49 Up, is due to be shown in 2005
In 1970 Apted decided to go freelance and spent the next two years directing plays for the BBC as well as the ITV companies. He made his cinema debut in 1972 with The Triple Echo, an adaptation of an H. E. Bates story set in 1942 about a young soldier who deserts and falls in love with a farmer's wife who tries to hide him by passing him off as her sister. The film was not a commercial success, but Apted was chosen by producer David Puttnam to direct Stardust, a sequel to Claude Whatham's That'll be the Day (1973), which looked at how the character played by David Essex becomes a pop music icon in the 1960s as part of a band not too different from the Beatles.
After the success of Stardust, Apted, Puttnam and screenwriter Ray Connolly re-united to adapt Connolly's novel Trick or Treat, which began shooting in Rome with Stéphane Audran and Bianca Jagger in the lead roles. However, filming was never completed and Apted moved on to The Squeeze, a thriller about an alcoholic ex-detective (Stacy Keach) who has to try and rescue his ex-wife and her daughter from a gang of thieves. Although the film is made up of all the familiar ingredients of the private eye genre - sex, violence, a comic foil for the fallen hero (a comparatively low-key performance by Freddie Starr) - Apted's eye for detail and his interest in female characters give the film a unique resonance, as does his ability to shift dramatic gears effectively.
Agatha (1979), Apted's next film, is a much more decorous and gentle crime film, a fictionalised embroidering of the true case of the disappearance of mystery writer Agatha Christie in 1926. Largely set in Harrogate and filmed in many of the real locations involved, such as the Old Swan Hotel and the Bath Spa, it benefits from the atmospheric cinematography of Vittorio Storaro and a first rate performance by Vanessa Redgrave. But it proved to be a troubled production for Apted. One of the producing partners was First Artists, an actors' co-operative set up by, amongst others, Dustin Hoffman, whose insistence on being inserted into the film, as Christie's (fictitious) love interest, necessitated many re-writes.
In 1980 Apted was invited to America by Ray Stark to work on a project called BAM, which never came to fruition. While there however, he was offered the chance to make Coal Miner's Daughter (US, 1980), a bio-pic of country singer Loretta Lynn, for which Sissy Spacek would win an Oscar, and which proved to be a tremendous commercial and critical success. Subsequently, Apted chose to move to California, returning regularly to work in the UK and oversee the education of his children. In 1982 he made one of the first Channel Four films to get a cinema release, P'tang, Yang Kipperbang, a story about children growing up after the war which re-united him with David Puttnam and Jack Rosenthal.
Since then, Apted has continued to make films, TV programmes and documentaries in the US, but he was also responsible for two big budget productions made in Britain: the nineteenth James Bond film The World is not Enough (1999), and an adaptation of the Robert Harris novel about the Bletchley Park code-breakers, Enigma (UK/US/Ger/NL, 2001). In the former, one can see Apted's hand in the use of real places within the story (the real MI6 building and the Millennium Dome in London, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) and the greater role played by women in the narrative, including the first female villain (as opposed to henchwoman) of the series. Enigma was a long- time in the making, with funds eventually coming from the Netherlands, Germany, the UK and the US. Made with Apted's consummate professionalism, the film is something of a throwback to Hitchcock's spy thrillers of the 30s and 40s.
Though he has made more films in the US than in Britain, Apted's varied output has consistently exhibited his interest in socially relevant themes, while his consistently sympathetic treatment of women can be seen throughout his work, from The Triple Echo right up to his most recent film, the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Enough (US, 2002). His willingness to return to documentaries, such as Incident at Oglala (US, 1991), which explores the factual basis of his hard-hitting feature film, Thunderheart (US, 1992), displays an active, questioning intelligence rarely found among mainstream Hollywood directors.
Connolly, Ray, Stardust Memories (London: Pavilion, 1983)
Petrie, Duncan (ed.), Inside Stories: Diaries of British Film-makers at Work (London, BFI, 1996)
Walker, Alexander, National Heroes (London: Harrap, 1985)
Sergio Angelini, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors