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Onward and Up

There are few things more annoying than having someone tell you about a book you haven't read, or a lovely place you haven't been to, or a gourmet meal you didn't have a chance to eat. So I won't do that this morning. Instead I'll tell you about a TV series that you probably haven't seen.

It's called simply the "Up" series and it's been going for forty-nine years. It began in Britain in 1964 when we were all much younger, as was the producer Michael Apted, then just twenty three. The plan was to choose fourteen children, all of them seven years old, from different social classes and from different parts of Britain, to interview them on camera, and then to repeat the process every seven years. Now we've seen them at seven, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight, thirty five, forty two, and forty nine. It's an astonishing social and human document.

I've just caught up with the Up series by watching the latest, Fifty-Six Up, on DVD. It still includes thirteen of the original fourteen characters, although of course they are not "characters" in the show business sense but just people who were lucky or unlucky enough to get caught up in this unique experiment back in 1964.

If reality television exists, this is it. The characters are ordinary, that's the main thing, not even slightly glamorous, just like you and me (or at least like me). We see them get disillusioned, then fired up with enthusiasm again; fat then thin, successful, defeated, employed, unemployed, married, divorced. It's a literal slice of life at seven year intervals. Virtually nobody's life plans work out, but they keep going anyway. Their ordinariness, the lack of artificial dramas in their daily lives makes this series as far from soap opera and as close to real life as you could get, given the inevitable presence of a film crew.

The technique, which includes long and probing interviews, seems intrusive, even invasive, but how else could you get a realistic picture of how ordinary lives unfold? Only one subject has dropped out completely, which suggests that the ordeal of being on camera also has its rewards.

We can all make our own video biographies now, but they won't have the brutal honesty of this one. It's hard to imagine how it would feel to have such a public document of one's own life. Most of us conveniently forget whole chunks of our past – the bad times, the stupid mistakes, the unlucky relationships, to say nothing of how we looked and acted as teenagers. What was I like at seven, fourteen, twenty-one? I don't even want to think about it, let alone see it on a TV screen.

There must be a lesson in life to be learned from this series. Perhaps it is simply: "Don't give up." At every seven year stage some of the participants expressed feelings of being blocked or stuck, yet seven years later they had invariably moved on to something better, or at least different. In the latest episode, fifty-six up, again some express the feeling that this age represents "game over," and that nothing much more will happen in their lives. They're wrong, and I do hope that producer Michael Apted, who is just about my age, will find the energy to give us sixty-three up, and perhaps even seventy up. I really don't mind waiting.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Note: The "Up" series has gathered many prestigious television awards, including being top of the list of the fifty greatest documentaries in the year 2005. The whole series is now available on DVD in the United States.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.