7-49UP Interview with Neil Hughes
Introductory clip to the show:
The Up films, Michael Apted's series of ground-breaking documentaries, are acclaimed around the world as among the finest achievements ever seen in the field. Since 1964 the director has interviewed the same collection of people every seven years, charting their course through life and painting a picture at once unique to each individual and also reflecting through them the social and cultural changes in Britain in the half century or so since the films began. One of the more famous of his interviewees is Liverpudlian Neil Hughes, whose life has had more ups and downs than most through the seven films, with viewers watching him turn from a bright and bubbly seven year old to university dropout living in a squat in 21 Up and then, by 28 Up homeless, livingin a cavaran in the wilds of Scotland with seemingly no hope for the future. Happily, he has since found his calling in life with the latest installment, 49 Up, following him as he successfuly ran for re-election as a Lib Dem District Councillor in Cumbria. To commemorate Network's release of the complete Up series onto DVD, Neil has kind enough to talk to DVD Times about his life and experiences in making the programmes.
How and why did you first get involved in 7 Up?
It was a random choice. The producers wanted a range of children. I don’t have any idea how they picked the school, but I do remember that they interviewed lots of children, proably looking for a diverse mix who they knew would talk on camera!
The film was meant to be a one-off documenting the prospects of children coming from different social strata. What did you represent?
I’d say the lower middle class, my parents both worked (as teachers) and we lived in a housing estate, it wasn’t anything very glorious.
Do you remember much of the first filming?
I remember a lot, and a lot of the incidents that happened! I’ll never forget driving past Nuneaten, wondering if they all didn’t eat there! I also remember finding London very exciting as a child.
You were very bright and seemed very happy in that first film, but by the time the series reached 21-Up things had changed. What had happened?
Everybody’s lives have ups and downs, and it is important to stress that filming was only done at a certain on the spot moment. If filming taken place a week before or after it could have been different. Some aspects weren’t hugely representative.
Looking back at both 21 Up and 28 Up now must be quite hard for you?
I haven’t watched any since the third one, I seldom watch television!
How did Michael Apted find you for those two films?
Our relationship was fine, he is a ruthless businessman and artist, but we never fell out so much that it disrupted the schedule.
At the time, was being involved in those films a help or a hindrance?
Neither, it was simply a diversion from what was going on most of the time.
Did you ever get people coming up to you because of the film and offering advice or help (or for that matter abuse)?
All the time, it tended to die down from about two years after each episode. It’s not too bad now; but I was terribly embarrassed as a child.
I don't suppose it helped seeing the other people in the project and seeing them at university and getting on with their life?
I’ve never been jealous of the other people, or film crew for that matter. We all have jobs to do and society needs everyone to do their jobs so I never found there to be an issue.
Bruce, another of the participants, played a big part in helping you get back on your feet. How did you meet him and what did he do?
He was very good and I do owe a great deal to him. Our friendship sparked at a Granada reunion, we got talking about cricket, and our friendship began. I can’t remember how it came to be that he offered me to stay with him in London, but suffice to say he did and it was good. Since we have both left London our contact has been very intermittent.
Unwittingly, maybe, because of your problems you became one of the stars of the series, especially after you managed to turn your life around. That must have been quite odd.
If being permanently unemployed and living in a bed-sit is having turned my life around then that’s quite funny! I am really happy with the life I live, as I am much more stable now. But in terms of how I was perceived, people make of the media what they will, often drawing assumptions – everyone reacts differently.
By the time you reached 42 Up, things had improved, although maybe not by much as you were now a Lib Dem councillor. Were you always interested in politics?
I have always been interested in the world around me and in justice. I became interested in formal politics when I moved to London in my mid 30s, and I saw terrible poverty in and came to the opinion that something needed to happen. The idea came to me in Shetland many years before, but then became a reality in London.
You ran in the 2005 general election at Stockton North, a very safe Labour seat, and nearly beat the Tory into third place. Would you have enjoyed going to Parliament?
Yes, although I didn’t really anticipate getting elected as it was a paper candidate. I enjoyed the experience and it is a great privilege to be appointed by locals feeling that you could be their candidate. I think the challenge of being an MP would be a fascinating one, and it would allow me to put lots of things I think and talk about into practice.
Vince Cable or Nick Clegg?
I didn’t vote for either of them in the recent elections!
Did you have a feeling of satisfaction, when 42 and 49 Up were released, to show people that you had turned things around?
I was glad that the process was complete and that those that had been involved in the production felt happy with the finished article.
The series has been with you all your life, do you ever get a sinking feeling when you realise it's coming round to that time again?
Not really because no one is forced to participate, but more I’m more apprehensive about the journalists that approach me asking to speak to me. I get more of a sinking feeling when people march up to me in the street and say “Are you...?!”
What are people's responses to you now when they recognise you from the series?
It depends where it is. Local people local know me personally, but then tourists sometimes stumble across me and make some comments. It is natural curiosity, they are always friendly enough, but someone times when I’m pressed for time it can be a bit much.
He's been a big if intermittent part of your life, what's your relationship with Michael Apted like and what do you think of him as a filmmaker?
I’ve seen a stage play he directed, which I enjoyed very much. Since what I actually do is write plays so when I met the writer I was delighted. I don’t think I have seen any of his films. I never had difficulties getting on with him, but I suspect he is wise to my kind of personality, he is temperamental himself and I think he made allowances for that. He has a job to do and that’s what he does.
Roger Ebert the film critic described the series as "an inspired, almost noble use, of the film medium." What are your feelings on what the series is about and what its worth is?
I’m sure what he says it is true, and I think why people have warmed to the series.
7 Up originally started as a one-off documentary to examine the idea that the social standing you were born into would determine your future course of life. Did it?
It looks like it has! It didn’t determine my future course of life; I feel that it would have happened anyway. I don’t think any of us has jumped up or dropped down significantly.
The basic precept that you couldn’t cross class barriers is false, so whilst it may be true that people have gone down a variety of routes, there is still a lot of sympathy across the group. People can get along together; background doesn’t hold you back from doing so.
And finally, if you could go back to that seven year old full of life and offer him one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would say just get on with it! We all have a different deal in life (social, emotional etc) but we have to be what we are. That’s the only way people will make a way of their lives. The road to self knowledge is a very long one, and it takes a lot of patience, upsets and wrong turnings.
Many thanks to Neil for taking the time to conduct this interview. 7-49 Up is available now from Network at £49.99 RRP and is reviewed here.