The 'Up' Series: The Original, and Best, Reality Television

The kids Michael Apted has documented every seven years since they were seven are now 56.

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First Run Features

Much of today's "reality television" has a cringe-inducing, game-show aura that attracts pseudo-celebrities. But the origins of poking into peoples' lives on television had a distinctly different character.

It was 1964 when a young trainee named Michael Apted at Britain's Granada Television was mandated by a producer to round up a group of children for a documentary to test the Jesuit motto, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." Apted brought together 20 children—10 boys and four girls eventually made it to the film—for a visit to the London Zoo. They were a cross-section of Britain's post-World War II social strata, from the working class to the upper-middle class. The result was a vastly entertaining program called Seven Up. The black-and-white simplicity of the presentation did not dull the buoyancy of the children's personas. Each of them was asked to frame their futures, and did so in keeping with their backgrounds. Unlike their American counterparts of the era, they all seemed ready to take the place Britain expected of them—a would-be jockey who became a cab driver; East End school girls in an age when professions for them were unlikely; schoolteachers and solicitors with appropriate preparation.

"I think I missed the boat in the Up films," Apted said. "The biggest social revolution in my life has been the change in the role of women in society."

So successful was the original televised effort that Apted, who was promoted to director, went back to his original group in another seven years, and has continued to do so regularly. Most recently there is 56 Up, making a total of eight films that have become a classic series featured on British television and have been released in this country to a smaller but intensely devoted fan base, of which I am one. Roger Ebert lists the Up series "as one of the great imaginative leaps in films." The careful unfolding of these stories over decades rather than the frenetic style of American series seems to add to their allure or, as Ebert puts it, to "penetrate to the central mystery of life."

In the United Kingdom, the programs are an event anticipated as benchmarks in the evolution of latter-day Britain and get maximum television exposure. The film 56 Up has been released here by First Run Features and is currently playing at New York's IFC Center, with a national art-house run scheduled to follow.

Apted has had a highly successful commercial career to go along with his Up series, including Coal Miner's Daughter, which won a best-actress Oscar for Sissy Spacek. He's also directed Vanessa Redgrave, Jodie Foster, and Sigourney Weaver. In an appearance in New York, quoted in the London Observer, Apted acknowledged that his interest in women actors was in part his amends for including so few of them in the Up series: "I think I missed the boat in the Up films," he was quoted as saying. "The biggest social revolution in my life, growing up in England has been the change in the role of women in society. And because I didn't have enough women, I didn't have enough choice of what options were in front of women who were building careers and having families and all this sort of stuff."

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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