56 Up Review: Essential Viewing

56 UP: Monday 14th May, ITV1, 9pm

Michael Apted’s long-running documentary series Up has followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were just seven years old. Today they’re 56 and have changed considerably over the years. For the participants, the series much exist as an embarrassing document of the days when they used to frequently wear Parisian night suits and listen to Disco Duck; for viewers it’s a truly fascinating and completely unique insight into lives of others—like Big Brother, but without the idiots.

On this first part of 56 Up (the first of 3 parts to be broadcast) we catch up with Peter, who stopped participating in the series after 28 Up. An underpaid and seemingly uninspired schoolteacher at the time, he became the target of a tabloid press campaign after he criticised the government of Margaret Thatcher. Obviously, the tabloid press aren’t quite so militant today. They’re all sunshine, lollypops and rainbows now, and so Peter’s back to explain where he’s been all this time.

Back in the 1980s, Pete came across like an unexpected mix between Morrissey and Tony from Hollyoaks. Today, he seems noticeably mellower, and trendier—he’s lost the floppy hair. Together with his wife Gabby, Pete now sings and plays guitar in a Gram Parsons-inspired country-rock band. We’re even treated to a short performance.

It’s Neil, however, who is tonight’s main highlight. He began the series as a preconscious and excitable seven-year-old, with dreams of going to Oxford University. But he was rejected, and so he attended Aberdeen University instead. Soon after, he dropped out of education permanently and life dealt Neil a series of hard blows. By the time of 28 Up, he was seen living on the streets, uncertain of his future.

Over time, Neil has miraculously managed to work his way up to become a Liberal Democrat Politian in Cumbria, although he still appears to be unsatisfied with his life. He began the series as somebody destined for a bright future, somebody seemingly comfortable in their own skin. And yet with every instalment he’s become visibly more neurotic and bitter. 56 Up sees him at perhaps his most frustrated. He now dreams of becoming a writer, and is annoyed that fans of Up haven’t discovered his body of work.

Fortunately, due to the nature of the series, Up becomes increasingly more fascinating with every step that it takes. It’s simply human nature to want to know more about these people. And the more we know, the more we want to know. It’s not so much what these participants say that makes the series so brilliant, but what they say in retrospect. As we watch them age, their opinions and ambitions change over time. It’s like nothing else on television. It’s essential viewing.