Paul Almond dies at 83; director of groundbreaking ‘Seven Up!’ documentary
Canadian filmmaker Paul Almond was working in London in the early 1960s when he and producer Tim Hewitt came up with an idea for a documentary that would examine class and society through the eyes of children.
“Over a couple of pints in a pub,” Almond told the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto in 2004, “we decided to choose a group of 7-year-olds from both sides of the class divide and explore what their attitudes were.”
The resulting, groundbreaking film was “Seven Up!” the first in a heralded series of what came to be known as the “Up” documentaries tracing the lives of the same children as they grew older.
Almond, 83, who directed only the initial film and felt his role in sparking the popular series was unjustly forgotten, died April 9 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
He had a long history of coronary problems and suffered his most recent heart attack in early March, said his stepdaughter, Tracy Stoker.
Almond was a prolific television director whose work in the 1950s and early 1960s consisted mostly of dramas, several of which featured appearances by actors who went on to be famous. Sean Connery, pre-James Bond, and Zoe Caldwell started in Almond’s Canadian Broadcast Corp. production of “Macbeth” in 1961. William Shatner, pre-"Star Trek,” was in several of Almond’s dramas, as was James Doohan (Scotty on “Star Trek”).
Other then-little-known actors featured in Almond’s TV work include Leslie Nielsen, Lorne Greene, Rosemary Harris, Fred Gwynne and Geneviève Bujold, whom Almond married in 1967.
But Almond’s best known project — even as his name is sometimes not connected with it — is “Seven Up!,” which made its debut on U.K. television in 1964.
“There was a lot of talk of taxing the rich and leveling the playing field,” Almond said in the Globe and Mail interview. “But I was Canadian and Hewitt was Australian, and as outsiders we could see the class system still had an extremely strong hold on British culture and society.”
Michael Apted, who directed the powerful follow-up films in the “Up” series, was a researcher on “Seven Up!” and helped choose children from diverse backgrounds.
The film shows the children on playgrounds, at the zoo and in settings that range from a pre-prep school where the song “Waltzing Matilda” is being sung in Latin to a charity home where youngsters are making their beds pushed close together in a large room. Almond can be heard asking the children about their lives and aspirations.
One wants to be a ballet dancer, another a jockey; yet another doesn’t know the meaning of the word “university.” A girl says she doesn’t want to know black people; another child plans to go to Kenya to help poor people. “Those moments of humanity were incredibly touching,” Almond said in the Globe and Mail interview of the children’s comments.
He credited Apted with the idea of re-visiting the children every seven years to learn what has happened to them and how their world view has evolved. So far, seven follow-up films have been made, with the latest, “56 Up,” appearing in 2012.
“I would never for a second criticize the absolutely monumental work that Mike Apted has done,” Almond said in a 2010 Globe and Mail interview. But he was sad that only one of the children — Tony Walker, who wanted to be a jockey but instead as an adult drove a taxi — stayed in touch with him.
“When a new episode comes out, Tony sends me the press clippings,” Almond said, “in which I continue to see no mention of my name anywhere.”
Almond was born April 26, 1931, in Montreal. He attended McGill University in that city before moving on to Oxford, where he earned a degree in philosophy, politics and economics.
He began his television career in 1954, directing mostly for anthology shows in Canada. He also occasionally directed for American series, including episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
Beginning in 1968, he directed three feature films starring Bujold: “Isabel” (1968), “Act of the Heart,” also starring Donald Sutherland (1970) and “Journey” (1976).
Almond directed only sporadically after that and essentially quit the business after open-heart surgery in 1991. “You don’t get control anymore,” he told the Globe and Mail in 2000, “so I thank God I gave it up when I did.”
He moved to Malibu and wrote novels based on his family’s history. The eighth book in the saga, “The Inheritor,” was published a few days after his death.
His marriages to Bujold and ballet dancer Angela Leigh ended in divorce.
In addition to his stepdaughter, Tracy Stoker, Almond is survived by his wife, Joan; son Matthew James Almond; stepsons Trey, Tim and Chris Elkins; and eight grandchildren.
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