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TV review: ITV1's 56 Up
The cast of 56 Up. Image. ITV
Michael Apted's ground-breaking and universally-acclaimed documentary series has been following the fortunes of 14 people since they were seven-years-old. In the first instalment of 56 Up, we were reintroduced to Sue Davis, Paul Kligerman, Neil Hughes and Peter Davies.
Watching the familiar faces change over the years. The dodgy haircuts are amusing. Although not quite as amusing as some of the 1980s styling. Was that decade just a fashion nightmare for everyone?
It's difficult to criticise such a sweeping and socially important piece of television, but listening to Michael Apted ask some pretty ridiculous questions was a bit tiresome. "Do you worry about ill health in your old age?" he asked Paul. I expect he does now! Also, the music at the end belongs in a disaster movie; I thought one of them was going to be eaten by a shark.
Conventional wisdom says reality television was born when Big Brother first hit our screens in the summer of 2000. Yet this ground-breaking series from Michael Apted was laying the foundations for the genre before Nasty Nick was a glint in his mother's eye.
Back in 1964, Seven Up was commissioned as a commentary on the mobility (or immobility) of the English class
"Sue laughs a lot which endeared us to her, and the show"
system. Nearly five decades later, the Up series has been lampooned by Homer Simpson and referenced by Steven Spielberg; it has become a grand portrait of humanity rather than a socio-economic experiment. Either way, some of the 56 Up gang appear to have moved about as far from their working class roots as Del Boy.
As such it was fitting to start with Sue, a cheerful lady from east London who seems more content than many of her counterparts, despite admitting that she'll "never be a rich pensioner". She laughs a lot which endeared us to her, and the show, immediately.
Next up was Paul, who must have had the class-conscious producers rubbing their hands together when he asked what university meant back in Seven Up. These days, he's living it up in Australia after emigrating with his dad soon after the first programme.
"Neil's insights over the years have been thought-provoking and heart-rending"
Paul's section highlighted Michael Apted's grilling technique to the fore; he isn't shy about pushing on touchy issues: "Is the chemistry still there? You don't sound sure.." he asked.
Yet little personal intrusions are small-fry when you hear that the director had considered starting the 1964 documentary by lining up 20 kids and announcing that "only three of these children will be successful".
Thankfully that idea was binned, but it says much about post-war Britain's abrasive expectations and the programme's rigid origins.
It's all about Neil
If some of the participants needed guiding towards introspection, Neil Hughes certainly wasn't one of them. Of the original Seven Uppers, he is easily the most captivating and memorable.
He's the child that's seen smiling and skipping down the street at the age of seven. After growing up in Liverpool, he dropped out of university, squatted, lived a homeless, nomadic existence before becoming a Liberal Democrat councillor.
56 Up finds him working for the church as a lay preacher. In his spare time, he's an unsuccessful novelist. Strange because I'm sure Neil's autobiography would be a decent read. His CV's more eclectic than Forrest Gump's.
Neil has struggled with mental health problems since 21 Up; however, his insights over the years have been
"Its true beauty lies in the rich diversity of life"
thought-provoking and heart-rending in equal measure. He seems to have found a slice of contentment now. Or at least, that's what I hope. He muses that happiness comes "when you're not thinking about it". Wise words.
Finally we were reintroduced to Peter, who withdrew from the series after getting battered by the press for labelling Thatcher's government an "incompetent, uncaring shower" in 28 Up. He's basically returned to plug his country music group which, ironically enough, is called The Good Intentions.
As a project, Apted's series is genuinely unique to the point that it almost transcends the documentary genre, but its true beauty lies in the rich diversity of life. The last half century has brought a few surprises for all of this lot, yet they agree that you shouldn't live with regrets. "Life's there to be lived" says Peter philosophically. Although that might just be the title of his album.
Life-affirming and essential viewing. A programme that tells us something about ourselves, as well as the participants.
TV quotes of the week - 56 Up
"No formal education can prepare you for life. Only life can prepare you." - Neil Hughes. Ever the philosopher.
"As long as I can keep the house warm, and we can feed ourselves, I'll be fine." - Sue Davis. Practical to the core.
"I can tell you how I feel about her, but I have difficulty telling her..." - Paul Kligerman, who continues to battle with his feelings.
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