Millions of us grew up with the children whose lives were tracked in the visionary TV series 7 Up.
We shared their joy in finding contented family lives or fulfilling careers and felt the pain inflicted when life turned sour.
Director Michael Apted was a young researcher at Granada TV who helped select the kids for the first ground-breaking show in 1963.
His passion for the experiment, which follows their lives every seven years, won him the helm of the next film and he’s been there ever since.
This week, Michael – also the voice of the series – reunited us with those bright-eyed, seven-year-olds as they near pensionable age in ITV’s 63 Up.
James Bond director Michael, 78, says: “These people are like my
children. Sometimes they annoy the s**t out of you. Sometimes you want to kiss them, sometimes to kill them.
“It is that intimate relationship that goes beyond a moment. We have arguments but, like having a child, it always gets sorted out.
“In the end they’ll have the last word because I want them to come back. If I alienate them, embarrass them or am mean to them they won’t come back. And I love these people – we’re a big part of each other’s lives.”
It’s Michael’s job to keep the cast on board for decades and narrate each episode. His ability to persuade them to open up about all areas of their lives reflects the strength of their 56-year relationship.
But behind the scenes there have been bust-ups, swearing fits and flounce-offs. In fact, for more than 30 years one cast member has refused to be interviewed by Michael.
“John objected to the way I interviewed him way back in 21,” Michael says. “After a time he wouldn’t let me interview him, so executive producer Claire Lewis asks him the questions. I record my voice over hers.”
Privately educated, John was orphaned at nine, brought up by a working mum and went to Oxford on a scholarship. He achieved his ambition of becoming a barrister.
Also glossed over on the show is Michael’s expletive-filled row with Kensington prep boy Charles when he left the show.
Charles, who said he was proud to go to Durham University instead of Oxford or Cambridge, went on to be a TV producer too, but the pair haven’t spoken since.
Michael says: “I did everything to keep him in it but he wouldn’t do it. I was so upset I behaved incredibly badly. I swore at him and everything.”
But, he adds: “I’ve mellowed now. If Charles called to say he wanted to come back, of course I’d say yes.”
Other rows took place on screen. “I had an awful fight with Jackie, some of which was in the film. But we fight all the time – we’re like an old married couple.
She gives me b****ckings and I give her a hard time. But like all family rows, there’s deep feeling underneath and we’ll be all right in the end.”
Jackie, a comprehensive girl from the East End, settled in Glasgow and has three sons. Still in Scotland, she is now a grandmother.
Much harder to bear was the loss of Lynn Johnson, who we first met as a schoolgirl from London’s East End.
She thought she would work at Woolworths, but became a children’s librarian. She struggled with a brain condition and died suddenly in 2013.
“It was devastating for all of us –the first member of our Up family has gone,” says Michael.
“We knew while filming in her 40s she had an illness at work but it was a terrible shock when she died.”
Hearing that Nicholas, a farmer’s son from the Yorkshire Dales, who became a US university professor, has throat cancer was another painful blow.
Nicholas, who settled in America after marrying Jackie, later divorced and by 49 had a new wife Cryss.
“Nick has always been helpful and smart as hell. It’s unbearable to think of him so ill,” says Michael.
Of all the cast, viewers perhaps have most affection for Neil Hughes, who endured mental heath struggles.
In 1964 the lovable Liverpudlian dreamed of being an astronaut.
But by 21 he was in a squat. By 28 he was homeless and living in the Highlands.
He got his life together and is now a Lib Dem councillor. But Michael still worries about him the most.
“We strike a balance between checking on everyone and respecting their privacy.
But with Neil, because I live in Los Angeles, Claire frequently had him over for Christmas with her family.
“It was a shame his marriage fell apart. But I like to think we have helped, in some way, to look after Neil.”
Michael, married with four children and three grandchildren, is careful not to predict if there will be a 70 Up.
“I have no idea what will happen And I’m 78 – I might drop dead any minute!”