The Link Talks to Paul Almond
Canadian Filmmaker Discusses Seven Up! Doc
It is not surprising that film critic Roger Ebert called Seven Up! “possibly the most important television film ever made.”
In 1964 a series of films was started that intended to interview seven-year-old children in the UK every seven years to see how their lives had changed. The first film sets up the heartbreaking and powerful “documentary phenomenon” that explored a barrage of issues from race, class, and gender to politics and religion.
The creator, Canadian filmmaker Paul Almond, is a trailblazer in film and television and an officer of the Order of Canada.
With over 100 film and television credits and over eight books, Almond is now working on the last of a series of eight books that cover over 200 years of Canadian history.
“I have long felt a need for Canadians to get a fresh perspective on their glorious history,” he said.
In 1964, while working on a Tennessee Williams play for Granada Television in the United Kingdom, Almond met Tim Hewitt, an Australian, at a pub. They observed stark class division in the U.K., despite the Labor government’s claims of bringing in a “classless society.” Hewitt brought up the Jesuit saying “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” and this led to them creating the Seven Up! series.
In the series, Almond uses hand-held camera techniques and lowers the camera to the height of the subjects, which made the British producers very nervous. Nevertheless, he kept his Canadian style despite pressures to conform.
After 40 years in the film industry, Almond “deserted” it for the literary world. The Deserter is the first in his series of books on the Great Depression, and two more books that look at Canadian history from unusual and overlooked perspectives are coming out this summer.
On Wednesday November 17th at 2p.m. Cinema du Parc will be presenting an exclusive film screening of the original Seven Up! (1964) followed by a Q&A with Almond.
Almond, now 80 years old, sat with The Link to talk about his journey as a filmmaker and author.
The Link: What is exciting about the doc scene today—especially when it comes to technology?
Almond: I don’t know anything about the documentaries today. I’ve been a writer for twenty years. I pay no attention to what’s going on in the film world. Forty years of pioneering has been quite enough. But of course, one would mention digital technology and all that technical claptrap which makes it much easier to do documentaries. But it still is, as always, hard to have new ideas and to create works of art. Works of art depend upon the artist, not his technology.
How did you convince the people you chose for the Seven Up! series? How do they now feel about the project? Do their outcomes correspond to your expectations or the thesis of the film?
Well, they didn’t take any convincing. At that time, no one claimed we were doing more than just a simple little interview on television and I was a Canadian so they obviously thought it would be quite all right. Now, of course no one dreamed the series would go on.
As with all the 130-plus dramas I directed on television in Canada, America and England, I always just did my best, and it’s an old adage, you never know how well something is going to do until it’s finished and out.
An interesting example would be that of Act of the Heart, which Donald Sutherland played in. He had just come from MASH, which he and Elliott claimed was the biggest piece of rubbish! They thought it would fall on its face. And Donald was coming to do a prestige Canadian drama about a priest and a girl. Well, of course, American cinemagoers don’t like prestigious Canadian films about priests and girls, especially if they are somewhat courageously different. Americans prefer the kind of rubbish in MASH. So MASH was a huge box office hit, and Act of the Heart was not (albeit a big critical success).
What projects are you working on now?
I am finishing the last book in the series next summer. I have only one more book after that, which will be a compendium of the diaries written over 35 years of traveling with my photographer wife throughout the Middle East. I’m hoping it will be a rather fun set of tales, perhaps even with pictures from Joan’s collection. (See her website at joanalmond.com).
How has the situation of race and class changed since the making of the first Seven Up! film?
I have no idea. When I go to England, I see plays and have dinners with old friends. What’s going on in England today is of no interest to me. You understand, I have been buried in the last two hundred years of our own nation here in Canada.
What have been the biggest obstacles/challenges to your film career?
The biggest obstacle has always been the finance! Trying to find it, failing, trying again, always looking for money—it’s been a huge problem, and has led to my open-heart surgery 20 years ago.
Looking back, what are the things you would have done in addition to what you asked the subjects?
Looking back, I would have done nothing differently. First of all, it is not in my nature to look back on anything. I’m always looking ahead. That’s why in my eightieth year, I’m looking forward to going on to Toronto and doing more interviews. Then planning another tour across Canada next year, finishing book number eight in my series.
This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 14, published November 16, 2010.