Michael Apted’s great Up series, about a cohort of English children, wasn’t conceived as a series at all. In 1963, fresh out of Cambridge and as a trainee at Granada TV, Apted was asked to find a group of talkative 7-year-olds for a 40-minute special about the children who would be Britain’s barristers and businessmen, factory workers and housewives, at the century’s turn. Directed by Paul Almond and screened in 1964, Seven Up! was to have been a one-off. But when someone at Granada suggested revisiting the children at 14 and again at 21, Apted jumped at the offer to direct. Even after his career took off and he moved to Hollywood, he made time to make a new installment every seven years.

With the release of 63 Up last year, the series spans nine films and six decades. It is Apted’s most important work and one of the most revelatory documentaries about social change ever made. It has attracted imitations, scholarly articles and comment, and hordes of passionate fans—though perhaps this is the case as much in spite of as because of Apted’s direction.

From the outset, he imagined the project as an indictment of class inequality. He wanted to make, as he put it, “a nasty piece of work about these kids who have it all, and these other kids who have nothing.” Drawn to children (mainly boys) at the sharp ends of the class divide, he recruited five of the 14 children from elite private schools and six from London’s working-class primary schools and care homes but only two from a middle-class Liverpool suburb and one from rural Yorkshire. In their interviews in Seven Up! these 7-year-olds unselfconsciously performed the hierarchies of class—theater all the more devastating for its actors’ innocence. Who can forget the now-canonical clip of Andrew Brackfield, Charles Furneaux, and John Brisby (the “three posh boys”) obligingly recounting their reading material (“I read the Financial Times”), their plans (“We think I’m going to Cambridge”), and their view that the public (that is, private) schools were a very good thing indeed, since otherwise, their schools would be “so nasty and crowded”?

Riveting cinema, yes, yet troubling, too, and not only for the attitudes it exposed. Watching, one can’t help but wonder about the adults behind the camera, who, after all, orchestrated the performances and chose the scenes most likely to arouse our empathy, laughter, or even scorn. Not surprisingly, by the time of the first sequel, 7 Plus Seven, some of the children had become twitchy and resentful, and by 21 Up, they bristled at Apted’s patronizing manner and leading questions. Sue Davis, Lynn Johnson, and Jackie Bassett (three of only four women subjects) were interviewed together, as if their shared working-class background outweighed any individuality they might have. He went on to ask: Were they angry about their straitened opportunities? Didn’t they resent that they would go nowhere in life? It is unclear whether Apted could see that he was enacting the very class relations he deplored, but his subjects stoutly rejected his analysis. They had plenty of opportunities, they told him, more than enough. They intended to have the lives they wanted, thank you very much.