15/05/2012 06:52 BST | Updated 16/05/2012 05:21 BST

Television Review: '56 Up' Shamed What We Laughingly Call Reality TV

In 1964, Granada Television brought together a bunch of 7-year-olds, to discuss their dreams, their fears, their hopes for the future.

Nearly half a century later, it has become a unique social document, with the majority of the group agreeing to be interviewed and filmed once every seven years.

This must be a very strange occurrence for the subjects and the people they’re involved with… it’s a long enough gap for professional status, relationships and environments to be completely transformed (see Neil below), but not so long that people’s characters fundamentally change. And the people involved seem to have made their peace with the fact that they are essentially data in this grand experiment, of watching social survival in the 20th and 21st century.

Last night’s first episode of what is now, extraordinarily, 56 Up, concentrated on Sue, Paul and Neil.

Sue is still engaged to Glen, whom we first met in 49 Up, but in no rush to tie the knot again, following her divorce in her early 30’s. Work is an administrative job at London University, where she speaks to up to 500 students at a time. Recreation is local am-dram after a neighbour twisted her arm. “I’ll never be a rich pensioner,” she chuckled, “but as long as I can keep the house warm and we can feed ourselves, I’ll be fine.”

Paul, whom we first met living in care as a 7-year-old, moved to Australia as a schoolboy, and has been married to Susan for many years. The couple are happy grandparents and now work together as well, but Paul continues his battle with low self-esteem. “I can tell you how I feel about her, but I have difficulty telling her…”

There are financial challenges for the extended family, but the cameras found them travelling to the UK together, and still very much a functioning unit.

Sue, Paul and Neil through the years...

56 Up - all pictures: ITV

Away from the cartoon colours, fake tans and theatrics of the new paradigm “scripted reality” (shudder), the themes that ran through last night’s televisual log-book, were pretty much what you’d expect to find if you sat down long enough with anyone with any awareness and invited them to reflect on the state of their affairs: that, in the final tally, love is more important than money, that building foundations for your children is one of the most important purposes anyone can find for themselves, as Paul puts it, “teaching other people to care”, and that anyone who, by the age of 56, has health and a tiny bit of wealth is basically doing all right.

Perhaps because he lives beyond the confines of a long relationship and all the social buffers this provides, Neil may be best served to demonstrate this. It helps that he is the most reflective and articulate of all of the subjects, as well as being the one whose path has taken the widest turns from what one might consider normal, whatever that is.

Neil, a sweet-faced little 7-year-old, was the most heartbreaking of them all when, during his 30s, the documentary team found him living rough in Scotland. From his Shetland council estate, he reinvented himself completely, as a Liberal Democrat councillor in Hackney, and then in Cumbria, where we meet him now, continuing his council work, and working within the church.

This time around, he felt the need to set the record straight on his life. He remembered how many people watching the previous shows had felt moved to write to him, and tell him they knew how he felt. But, he said, “no one knows….”

He was obviously not interested in winning any kind of Cowell-sponsored popularity contest any time soon, nor in tapping in to some kind of TOWIE-led self-trumpeting fanfare that everything these days could, or should, go in front of the cameras to have meaning.

Neil’s writing, unpaid and unrewarded, feels more important to him than, for example, taking part in this documentary, and he reminds us too, “Maybe we’re at our happiest when we’re least aware of it…”

By shying away from the Twitter orgy of constant self-appraisal, congratulation and simply getting on with it, Neil and his fellow 56-ers have proved once again the difference between reality TV, and truth on the television.

56 Up continues next week on Monday at 9pm, ITV1.