Has it really been seven years since we last caught 'Up'?


TV REVIEW:FIFTY-SIX IS one of those nothing ages: neither the big-deal half-century nor the 60 slide-towards-retirement landmark. It’s just so solidly middle-aged that a programme catching up with a bunch of pretty ordinary 56-year-olds doesn’t sound promising.

But the rules change entirely when it’s 56 Up (UTV, Monday), the latest instalment in one of the great TV experiments: Michael Apted’s quietly ambitious and always fascinating documentary series that has been following, at seven-year intervals, 14 English people since they were seven.

They’re 56 now. I’ve been with them since series four; that was in 1984, when they were 28, and I still remember the revelation of Neil’s desperate situation. It seemed so poignant and shocking to me at the time that someone, an ordinary person on the telly, could go from being a chatty, big-eyed seven-year-old to being a chess-playing teenager, then to being a university dropout and, eventually, to being homeless in Scotland – all before our eyes. This was long before the schedules were chock-a-block with “reality” TV and personal revelations of all sorts of misery.

Since then, whatever happened to Neil has been my top curiosity, and that emotional engagement with the participants is the strength of the series. Neil’s fine, relatively. He has settled in Cumbria, where he is busy with the local church and was typically candid in his unhappiness at his inability to find either love or a paying career. He did, however, have interesting insights into the Up process, pointing out to Apted its obvious limitations: that it can only be a snapshot of the lives of the participants and can never hope to fully get to know them. He’s right there, but as snapshots go, under Apted’s quiet questioning and directorial restraint, it’s an edited album of images of ordinary lives that makes for compelling viewing.

As with any reunions, there were some people you wanted to see more than others. It was good to see East Ender Sue, happy both personally and professionally, and to know that Paul, who came from a children’s home in Liverpool and whose face since he was seven has been a study in anxiety, is now a busy grandfather in Australia. He is still prone to worrying but is just getting on with it.

It was hard to get too interested in the not-very-likable Peter, who had refused to take part since 28 Up but agreed to be filmed this time only to plug his band. And while, instinctively, you think that’s a bit shabby in the grand scheme of things, it’s actually completely in the sprit of the programme, which tries to capture the participants as they are now. And plugging his band is where he’s at.

Did the group always seem so monocultural? Of the 14, only Symon is not white. Were they always so skewed, genderwise? There are only three women. The mix now looks distinctly from another era, and while it’s the only weakness in the series it could, in a huge irony, make the programme, which marks time so superbly, appear anachronistic as the years go on.

IF 56 UP LIVES up to its descriptive title, Finbar Furey: Free Spirit (RTÉ1, Monday) was hopelessly misnamed. In Liam McGrath’s hour-long biographical documentary, the musician came across as neither free – he told story after depressing story of death, illness and professional difficulties, and seemed weighed down by them – nor spirited. He was either shuffling around a cluttered spare room, rummaging through memorabilia or, his face a mix of reluctance and belligerence, sitting talking to his off-screen interviewer. Furey is a superb musician whose performances of his own songs and Irish folk classics can reduce audiences to tears, so the decision to shape the documentary solely around interviewing him was a poor one. That didn’t stop the intermittent voiceover, written and delivered in the style of a numbing corporate video, reminding us that “music for him is an elusive spirit”.

The hook for the documentary was that Furey is about to embark on a three-month tour of the US because, as an on-screen slide told us, he’s big on college and local radio. So why not do it properly and follow him there? His loyal fans will have loved it, particularly the many music clips, but a biographical documentary should be powerful enough to draw in random channel-surfers no matter who the subject is. I’d be astonished if this one did. Furey deserved a better film than this clunky, lethargic one.

KEVIN WHATELY AS Det Lewis will always, in my mind, be a nit-picking, charisma-free sidekick whom even Morse only just tolerated, so I’ve never seen the attraction of the spin-off series, Lewis (UTV, Wednesday), though it keeps coming back, as it did this week. Far more interesting and entertaining is Silk (BBC1, Tuesday), set in a London legal chambers and starring Maxine Peake, Rupert Penry-Jones and a solidly good, recognisable cast. She’s barrister Martha Costello, and, as the new series opens, she has been elevated to QC – ahead of colleague Clive Reader (Penry-Jones). Series one made much of the class distinctions between the two. (British TV is obsessed with class. Exploring its impact was the basis for Apted’s Up series.) She’s from up north, with the wrong accent, from the wrong university; he’s a posh bloke with connections.

It’s slick, smart and, even though Peake’s not quite convincing as a top barrister, anything that involves a cliffhanging courtroom scene is good enough for me. And this one, involving a criminal squealing on his boss, had the added twist of Costello seeming so blinded by her own legal brilliance that she failed to see the risk she was putting her client, the snitch, in. Viewers could see it a million miles off, and he indeed came to a gruesome end – but, happily, well off screen.

WITHOUT TRYING TO TIE myself in metaphorical knots involving animals, the final of Britain’s Got Talent (UTV, Saturday) was one of those jump-the-shark TV moments – and, like him or loathe him, another example of Simon Cowell’s Svengali-like TV brilliance. Pudsey the dog won – and so did Cowell in his ratings battle with The Voice UK, on BBC1. Next year those thousands of singers and dancers with desperation in their eyes will have to do better than a performing dog. I’d say Cowell still hasn’t stopped cackling at his own viewer-manipulating genius.

Get stuck into . . .

In Hit Miss (Sky Atlantic, Tuesday) Chloë Sevigny (right) plays a gangland transgender hitwoman in a new six-part drama. That’s a lot of plot going on even before the opening credits roll.