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Reel life: The mesmerizing saga of "56 Up"

From 2013: Recording life, seven years at a time
From 2013: Recording life, seven years at a t... 10:01

(CBS News) Imagine what it would be like to have your whole life from age seven onwards be part a long running series of documentaries. As it happens, fourteen middle-aged people in Britain don't have to imagine it at all. How their real lives as they actually lived them came to be captured on reels of film is our Sunday Morning Cover Story, reported by Lee Cowan:

It looks like any other group of kids in the early 1960s, but it wasn't just a dance party. It was a sociological experiment for a British documentary called "Seven Up!"

The idea was to gather 7-year-olds from widely different backgrounds, and look at Britain's class system through their eyes.

At one end of the extreme: Upper-class seven-year-olds, like the trio of John, Andrew and Charles attending a boarding school.

John: "I read the Financial Times."
Andrew: "I read the Observer and the Times."
Charles: "What do you like about it?"
John: "Well, I usually look at the headlines and then read, about them."

At the other end of the spectrum: seven-year-olds who were less privileged, like those growing up in a charity group home.

Interviewer: "What do you think about rich people?"
Symon: "Well, not much."

After it first aired in 1964, the boys and girls -- 14 of them in all -- became mini celebrities for their wit and charm.

Interviewer: "What do you think of girlfriends at your age?"
Andrew: "I've got one, but I don't think much of her!"

The man who talked to them all those years ago was Michael Apted, a 22-year-old researcher on the project.

"It was very funny, the original one, but it was also alarming," Apted told Cowan. "You could see that people's views of the world were totally determined by where they were coming from. And those who had somewhat impoverished backgrounds had a very narrow view of the world, and those who were in power had this grand view, not just of the world, but of their lives."

He was so struck by what they said that he vowed to track the same group down -- every seven years -- ever since. The result: A series that critic Roger Ebert calls one of the best films of all time.

The latest installment, "56 Up," comes to U.S. theaters this month.

Cowan asked, what is it that makes this so compelling?

"Well, 'cause I think people identify with it," Apted replied. "You see 13, 14 stories up there, and there's elements in some of them that hit home on every life. Everybody who watches it can identify with something."

Suzy is one of his favorites. When she was seven, the series pried into her thoughts on boys. Over the years Apted kept asking:

Interviewer: "Tell me, do you have any boyfriends Suzy?"
Suzy at 7: "Um, yes. ... He lives up in Scotland. I think he's 13."
Interviewer: "Have you got any boyfriends, Suzy?"
Suzy at 14: Glares.
Interviewer: "What is your attitude toward marriage?"
Suzy at 21: "I don't know, I haven't given it a lot of thought because I'm very, very cynical about it."
Interviewer: "Now you seem happy, what's happened to you over these last seven years?"
Suzy at 28: "I suppose Rupert."

Now at 56, Suzy is still married to Rupert, with two grown sons and a daughter.

"There are great moments in the film, aren't there, when you cut from one generation to another, and it's night and day," said Apted.

In-between those seven-year intervals, Apted's been busy making other movies -- blockbuster movies. He directed Sissy Spacek in her Academy Award-winning performance in "Coal Miner's Daughter." He directed "Gorillas in the Mist," too - nominated for five Oscars. He even did a James Bond film, "The World Is Not Enough."

But it's these relatively small-budget, seven-year retrospectives that Apted considers his life's work -- and tough work it is.

After all, it's not just weddings and birthdays that he marks. Take Neil, for example.

Neil at 7: "When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut, but if I can't be an astronaut, I think I'll be a coach driver."

By the time Neil was 14 he was planning for college, but by 21 he had dropped out and was working on a construction site.

When Apted found him at 28, Neil was homeless, wandering the English countryside. Apted was sympathetic, but he pressed ahead with sometimes piercing questions.

Interviewer: "Do you worry about your sanity?"
Neil at 28: "Um . . . other people sometimes worry about it. . . . As I said, I can sometimes be found behaving in an erratic fashion."

"It's very tough," Apted told Cowan. "Sometimes I've asked questions, and I've watched the film with an audience and the audience gasps, and I think, oh my God, sometimes I think I may have gone too far."

In the end though, Neil found his footing. By 42, he ran and was elected to his town's council. By 56, he had even become a lay minister in his church.

But having his life's stumbles exposed hasn't been easy for him, or any of the "Up" series participants.

Interviewer: "Do you have a girlfriend?"
Nick at 7: "I don't want to answer that, I don't answer those kinds of questions."

Form the start Niuck was a bit reluctant. At 14 he didn't even look at the camera. By the time Nick was 21, he told Apted on camera he didn't much like the interrogation every seven years: "It's just that the limitations of such things as what the audience requires, and the time, don't allow it to be a real study."

Still, Nick has never backed out. Over the years we've watched his move to America, become a professor at the University of Wisconsin, get married, have a son, get divorced, and get married again.

Apted's sometimes uncomfortable questions never stop.

"I mean, he's not deliberately setting out to be mean to us," Nick told Cowan. "But you know, making good TV is absolutely his top priority."

"Have you told Michael how painful it is?"

"Oh, he knows!" Nick replied.

As he looks back, does he regret doing it? "No, I don't. I mean, it's interesting. I mean, you know, it would be kind of pathetic to opt out of it. Even if it's painful, it's interesting and it's important."

Not all of them dislike the process. From the beginning, little Tony seemed to relish it.

Tony at 7: "I wanna be a jockey when I go up! Yeah, I want to be a jockey when I grow up!"

He was a rough-neck kid from London's East End, who did indeed become a jockey. But by 28 he had traded his horse in for a London cab, which is where we found him.

"I'm very lucky to have that documentation of my life," Tony told us.

Not that he's had an easy go of it. In "42 Up," he admitted -- on camera -- to having an affair.

Tony at 42: "I'm not proud at all to say this, but situations that arise that I've had regretful behavior at various times."
Wife: "You got caught and that was it."

"My wife wasn't very happy in the fact that, you know, it came out," Tony said. "And I was wrong. But my wife and I are now real strong again."

Apted says he'll keep the series going as long as everyone is willing, and healthy. The thought of anyone dying, he says, is too much to bear.

"People say, how will I deal with it? Well, I just don't know. I don't know how I'd deal with it until I have to. Hopefully I won't have to deal with it. Hopefully I'll go first."

His goal: to keep doing it until his film family are in their 80s. Apted will by then be nearly 100.

"I figured out when I do 84, I'll be 99. So that could be a nice swan song, shouldn't it?" he laughed.

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