49-Up: The real ‘Little Britain’

In 1964, World in Action chose a cross-section of society (stratified by class, as they then saw it) to follow throughou...

September 15, 2005


In 1964, World in Action chose a cross-section of society (stratified by class, as they then saw it) to follow throughout their lives, popping in at 7-year intervals to assess their ‘progress’.

This was the progenitor of reality TV, heavily overlaid with the behaviourist assumptions of its time. It was a social experiment. But is has become a social phenomenon.

The next episode, 49-up airs tonight on ITV1 at 9 o’clock. This is unmissable television.

Over the last 42 years, many of those original class-laden assumptions have slipped away to reveal a story of a much more complex picture of life, not just in Britain, but anywhere.

It is the programme’s unwillingness to draw sweeping conclusions that gives it its power. It is universal, but personal. By following these threads of life, observing, questioning, but never judging their common frailty in ways, the tapestry becomes positively epic.

All happy families are the same, but each family’s misery is unique, said Tolstoy. Or something like that. This is not War and Peace, but it still has that historical sweep that makes it paradoxically timeless.

There is enormous sensitivity to the editing of these stories, and a lack of intrusive editorial voice. We, as viewers are allowed to make up our own minds and forge our own connections.

The series has a knack for inciting both nostalgia and hope.

It is intensely humane.

By keeping the same team that worked on 28-up, I really hope they’ve been able to keep that same humane editorial voice.

My sense of anticipation is palpable.

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