British reality-TV format fascinates in ‘56 Up’

I have no idea what it will be like for viewers coming on “56 Up” as their introduction to this famous documentary series. Certainly it will seem intriguing, and maybe even a profound experiment in following ordinary lives over time.

It’s a little different if you’ve known this series longer than that. For Britons, it debuted as a TV special, “7 Up,” in 1964; Americans had our first glimpse of the phenomenon with the release of the feature “28 Up” in 1984.

If you feel like you’ve got a history with this series, each new one is like checking in with a group of vaguely known friends, and being brought up to date, and sometimes surprised, at how their lives are progressing and how much endurance people have.

The project follows 14 British people, chosen as 7-year-olds in the ’60s, and re-visits their lives every seven years. The group has turned 56, and director Michael Apted (who was a young researcher on the first show but has directed the subsequent installments) has once again assembled a collage of how these folks are getting along.

Someday, if not already, this series will be enshrined as the remarkable social experiment it is. And the subject won’t be class differences (as it seemed with the first show), but the effect of a camera observing life.

“56 Up” is a fascinating chapter in many ways. For one, it brings the show back to its politically tinged roots; the economic collapse (and the U.K.’s austerity measures since) have made some of the participants into more vocally progressive people.

In their middle age, the roster of folks don’t have earth-shattering revelations this time. We mark the changes in their lives as small increments here, as most are doing what they were doing before.

One participant, Peter, has joined the show again after declining to be interviewed since “28 Up.” He has no lofty reason for this; he just wants to promote his folk-music band.

In fact, most of the folks signal various levels of reluctance about participating. The amusing and somehow restless Suzy admits she promised last time to withdraw, but here she is again, laughing at her own loyalty to the series, “even though I hate it.”

Lost soul Neil, settled down now but still battling demons, is most vocal about his issues with the program. But everybody is a little at odds about their celebrity; they all seem somehow trapped inside this process.

The “Up” series is like “The Truman Show” playing out in real time, and at 56 years it’s too late to escape. Might as well ride it out and see what happens, sort of like life itself.

“56 Up” HHH ½

The latest episode in a reality-TV project that has been checking in with a group of Britons since they were seven years old. And although there aren’t many big changes in the lives of these 56-year-olds, the folks onscreen are increasingly reflecting on what it’s been like to have their lives exposed for a camera for their entire lives, a fascinating social experiment.

Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing: Guild 45th, SIFF Uptown.

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