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Reality Has a Long Life in the PBS Showcase '56 Up'
October 13, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 6 comments

If reality programming is your thing, you'll need to tune in on the grandfather of all reality concepts, Director Michael Apted's Up series. It began almost 50 years ago on the UK's Granada Television, following the ups and downs of the lives its subjects.

Part armchair anthropology and part video diary, the next three-hour installment, called 56 Up —Apted has done one every seven years since 1964—airs Monday on the PBS POV documentary series (at 10 pm, ET but check local listings).

Since it began, Apted has seen his subjects as kids (when he was a young researcher for the original), and then in seven year increments, as adolescents at age 14, young adults at 21, and then marriages and careers, and on and on, at 28 and 35. This is the eighth installment. These kids are now 56.

Apted (Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist) is off camera asking gentle, yet sharp questions about whether life has been happy or, now that they are over 50, if there is, like a real version of Sinatra’s My Way, a trail of stubborn regret. Most, in fact, have the rounded glow of middle age, of having lived and made the best of their choices – even Neil, who went homeless for a while.

Another subject, Symon (left), grew up in an orphanage, and went on to various labor jobs and has since foster-parented dozens of other kids. Apted asks, "Do you see life as some parts failure and some parts success, or do you not think like that?"

Symon answers, "You might go down the wrong road -- it doesn't mean that's the end of the road. There's no judge. You have to turn around and come back and start again."

Apted's series, which won a 2013 Peabody Award, follows all kinds of kids from all kinds of economic backgrounds. They went on to various professional, clerical and blue-collar careers. We find participants in their own segments as they are today, and then cut to clips from the original Seven Up episode. Successive interviews from other installments are layered in to show choices made and unforeseen U-turns that life serves up.

It's a fascinating tapestry of lives playing out over decades, with changing hairstyles, clothing-- and waistlines-- marking the chapters.

Clips of the group as young adults trying to imagine their future, followed by immediate cuts of how it all actually played out are captivating. Also startling (although how can we really be surprised?) is the video footage of them as children and how much of their personalities they revealed, even at the age of seven.

The dominant theme of 56 Up is the burden of those early dreams coupled with the rear-view of middle age and the reconciliation and acceptance of what's now behind them. It might be a video version of the same internal conversations viewers inevitably have when their lives are jarred by change, good or bad.  

There’s probably some comfort in this documentary’s insights for older viewers at the same stages. But perhaps more worthy is what 56 Up might say to younger viewers who can identify with the group as kids and young adults – and then see them advance decades forward in the flash of a few scenes.

It's then when 56 Up poignantly implies how short life is – and how it is, simply, what you make of it. Suzy, who opted out of college and never envisioned kids (top photos), and who later married and began a family, says, "You know, we all make mistakes, in everything, from parenting to decisions in life. You make mistakes and that's how you become the person you are."
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Film is available online for free anytime at pbs.org till mid-Nov.BTW,PBS has excellent closed captioning online.To echo Eileen:turn off the duck decoys,the Honey Boo-Boos and the Kims and watch this.
Oct 16, 2013   |  Reply
This, my friends, is Reality TV!
Oct 13, 2013   |  Reply
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