Published on: 11 January 2021 in Directors UK

Remembering Michael Apted

Reading time: 11 minutes and 32 seconds

<i>Michael Apted at the Directors’ Festival 2015</i>
<i>Michael Apted at the Directors’ Festival 2015</i>

We were deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Michael Apted, a humane, prolific and versatile director who was a founding member of the Century Group, which led to the creation of Directors UK.

Below, we take a moment to appreciate Michael’s life and works, and Susanna White, Paul Greengrass and Charles Sturridge, fellow directors and Century Group members, share their memories of an inspiring artist and friend.

Born in Buckinghamshire in 1941, Michael Apted began his career in television as a trainee at Granada Studios. He hit the ground running, playing a significant role in the first instalment of the Up documentary series in 1964, a project that he would return to direct seven years later and every seven years after that, all the way up until 2019. Described by Roger Ebert as “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium”, the series chronicled the lives of fourteen schoolchildren at seven-year intervals, and proved to be a gamechanger in documentary storytelling. Alongside this, he had a prolific career in TV drama, directing everything from episodes of Coronation Street in his early career to major US dramas such as Rome, Masters of Sex and Ray Donovan.

Michael also enjoyed a sparkling career in feature film, earning seven Academy Award nominations — including Best Picture — for the Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and another five for the Sigourney Weaver-starring Gorillas in the Mist (1988). His career saw him work with screen legends across the decades, including Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed in Triple Echo (1972), Richard Pryor in Critical Condition (1987), Jodie Foster and Liam Neeson in Nell (1994) and Piers Brosnan and Sophie Marceau in the The World is Not Enough (1999).

What is perhaps less known, but no less important, is the formidable impact Michael had on organising directors in the UK, and his help in establishing “the Century Group” — without which Directors UK would not exist. Apted was elected president of the Director’s Guild of America in 2003, and it was in this capacity that he encouraged the Century Group — a gathering of filmmakers that took its name from the London club where they first met — to similarly fight for the status, pay and working conditions of directors in the UK. At the time of the Group’s formation, directors’ interests were represented by a disparate collection of organisations: the Directors’ and Producers’ Rights Society (DPRS), the Directors Guild of Great Britain (DGGB) and BECTU. The Century Group decided, after discussion with these groups and with the support of Apted’s DGA, to pool their resources and unite behind one group, the collecting society DPRS, for maximum campaigning impact. In 2007, DPRS, following input from members of the Century Group, became Directors UK, and we have been fighting for the craft of directing ever since.

In 2015, we were honoured to have Michael deliver a keynote speech at our annual Directors’ Festival. He spoke about the importance of forging a career on the back of determination, vision and guts — all qualities he had in spades. You can watch the keynote address in full by clicking here or scrolling below.

Michael Apted passed away on 7 January 2021, aged 79. He is survived by his third wife Paige and three children Paul, John and Lily. Our thoughts go out to Michael’s family and friends at this time. Filmmakers around the world will join Directors UK in mourning an inspiring presence in the industry, to whom we owe so much.

Directors Susanna White, Paul Greengrass, and Charles Sturridge were all original members of the Century Group, which proved essential to the organising of directors and led to the creation of Directors UK.

Below, they share their memories of Michael — and the pivotal meeting that sparked the incredible community we have today.

Susanna White — Directors UK Vice-Chair

I was starting out as a young drama director when I first met Michael Apted. Along with Justin Chadwick, I had just had my first big screen credit for Bleak House. Justin and I were invited to a meeting at the Century Club that Michael convened, along with some huge names — from Alan Parker and Paul Greengrass to David Yates. In that room, largely full of alpha males, I remember Michael, with that wonderful gentle voice of his, encouraging me to speak out about how I felt directors were being treated in UK television. In the way he must have coaxed those fabulous interviews in the Up series, he drew me out when I was nervous in the room. I found myself opening up, explaining that while there was a public perception of directors as wealthy entitled individuals, the reality of working on that show for me was a struggle to manage and pay for the level of childcare I needed to look after my young twins. Michael talked inspiringly about how different things were for directors in the USA, and how glaringly different his experience was working in the US and in the UK. Michael inspired many of us in the room that day to set up Directors UK and followed up with practical ideas and offers of financial support from the DGA. He showed me that leadership came in many forms and it could just as effectively come from a quiet inspirational approach as from noise and fury.

Michael was someone who followed through in great detail. He encouraged me to join the DGA and personally signed my application form. That practical support opened up a whole new area of work for me in the USA. He encouraged me to attend board meetings of the DGA to see how things were done there and looked after me when I went. With typical courtesy, he made sure I was introduced to interesting people in the room. He had total professionalism and integrity, often delivered with a sparkly humour and self-deprecation. And he remembered. He’d meet me for coffee when I was in LA or New York to see how I was getting on. And he’d always ask after the childcare… Michael might have appeared like a patrician elder statesman, but he was actually way ahead of his time in terms of supporting gender equality in the industry. He was a great director, a great ally and a great friend, and I am so saddened to hear that he has gone. He taught me so much on so many levels and inspired me to engage politically with the industry. He leaves a great legacy behind him.

Paul Greengrass — Former Directors UK President

Michael was a great director and a wonderful man. 

He was also a friend of directors everywhere. He campaigned tirelessly to protect and enhance our creative freedoms and conditions.

Directors in the UK owe him a special debt. He was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Century Group initiative that eventually lead to the creation of today’s Directors UK.

His tenacity, his wisdom and his generous spirit inspired all of us at that time to believe that we could and should establish a professional body to represent us all. 

And the terrific organisation that we have today is a fitting testament to his vision.

Michael was simply one of the very, very best of us….and i shall miss him enormously.

Charles Sturridge — Former Directors UK Chair

Michael Apted was a remarkable director by any standard and was one of a generation of British directors who made the transition seamlessly from television to internationally respected movies, from Coronation Street to James Bond. His stellar career will be chronicled more skilfully elsewhere but I would like to pay tribute to something else, and from a very personal point of view, because in more ways than one, like the carol, I followed in his footsteps. 

My first job in TV was as his assistant on a 1974 film called Poor Girl, and in that capacity I was sent to look for the screenwriter who had “vanished” while on holiday with his family in Spain two weeks before the shoot began. My task was to locate him and persuade him to do the rewrites Michael required. I failed miserably and sitting in my Spanish hotel room I thought: I can’t return to Michael empty handed… I know what he wants, so I had better do the job myself. Two days later I handed him the bundle of pages more nervously than I can describe and a preoccupied director wandered off clutching them, only to find me later in the day and say, laconically: “OK, fine, we’ll shoot them”.

Dry and funny, he viewed filming as an act of honest labour in which everyone had their role to play and more importantly everyone had a voice. He was a political human being in a way that runs directly through his work and life like a vein of solid silver. A long-time member of the Directors Guild of America, he became its three-term President in 2003. But it is for an unlikely meeting in Shaftesbury Avenue in 2006 that he is particularly remembered here in the UK. A few weeks before, he had sent me an email saying that he wanted to set up a meeting of British film and TV directors – a community whose rights to both control and benefit from their work had been disastrously eroded. “There’s no coherent or united policy, so in stuff like residuals and creative rights British directors are miles behind their American colleagues”, he wrote. He wanted to get 25 directors together, but in the end there were over a hundred men and women sat around the table in the Century Club, who afterwards became known as the Century Group.

Unlike actors, for example, who live in a communal world of rehearsal rooms and auditions, directors rarely meet each other and to some extent perhaps feel they are defined by their singularity. So on that January morning, despite the fact that there were many prominent directors in the room, very few of us had actually met before. Michael spoke characteristically quietly, pointing out that as directors we were represented by multiple organisations, including a rights society, a union and a guild. But rather than this being a strength, it was palpably a catastrophic weakness which had resulted in an absence of effective representation on both a national and international level. Michael offered no solution, but said that somehow we must, as a group, take responsibility and organise on our own behalf. At the end of a genuinely exciting day of shared information, which covered topics from childcare to cutting room etiquette, and a genuinely unexpected sense of community, a small group of us volunteered to meet again and carry the arguments forward, including among many others Paul Greengrass, Peter Kosminsky, Tom Hooper, Michael Caton-Jones, Susanna White, Tim Sullivan and, more out of loyalty to Michael than political confidence, myself.

Two years later Directors UK was launched, fighting for creative and financial rights and championing gender and racial diversity in an industry with a disastrously poor record in both. None of this would have happened without Michael’s dry and gently humorous summation of the total mess we had allowed ourselves to get into by relying on our sad lone wolf arrogance rather than creating an effective, powerful and mutually-supportive representational body. And while, as he would agree, there are no laurels to be sat on here, and enabling directors to work freely and to be supported both creatively and financially is a continuing struggle, the meeting that cold winter’s morning has affected the lives of all of us.

Finally, I think he would expect me to mention one other thing which we also have in common. It was at Manchester’s Granada Television that we both got our start, and it is hard in the contemporary world of micromanagers and focus groups to convey exactly what that meant to us. There is no such thing as a “Golden Age of Television” or if there is, it hasn’t happened yet. Great work is always hard to slip under the wire, but Granada’s genuinely eccentric mix of independence and stubbornness, tempered by a flick of Barnum and Bailey showmanship — all clear characteristics of Michael himself — created a climate in which those of us lucky enough to experience it found the creative space to work to the limit of our ability. There is no greater example of that than Michael Apted, both as an artist and a man.

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