“Reality television” as we now call it has a game-show aura in which amateurs with a willingness to show off become pseudo-celebrities. While some viewers may cringe (or skip the genre altogether), reality shows have attracted audiences in droves. But the origins of poking into peoples’ lives on television had a distinctly different character. It was 1964 when a young trainee named Michael Apted at Britain’s Granada Television was mandated by a producer to round up a group of children for a documentary to test the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Apted brought together twenty children— ten boys and four girls eventually made it to the film—for a visit to the London Zoo. They were a cross-section of Britain’s post-World War II social strata, from the working class to the upper-middle class. The result was a vastly entertaining program called Seven Up. The black-and-white simplicity of the presentation did not dull the buoyancy of the children’s personas. Each of them was asked to frame their futures, and did so in keeping with their backgrounds. Unlike their American counterparts of the era, they all seemed ready to take the place Britain expected of them—a would-be jockey who became a cab driver; East End school girls in an age when professions for them were unlikely; schoolteachers and solicitors with appropriate preparation.

So successful was the original televised effort that Apted, who was promoted to director, went back to his original group in another seven years, and has continued to do so regularly. Most recently there is 56 Up, making a total of eight films that have become a classic series featured on British television and have been released in this country to a smaller but intensely devoted fan base, of which I am one. Roger Ebert lists the Up series “as one of the great imaginative leaps in films.” The careful unfolding of these stories over decades rather than the frenetic style of American series seems to add to their allure or, as Ebert puts it, to “penetrate to the central mystery of life.”

In the United Kingdom, the programs are an event anticipated as benchmarks in the evolution of latter-day Britain and get maximum television exposure. The film 56 Up has been released here by First Run Features and is currently playing at New York’s IFC Center, with a national art house run scheduled to follow.

Apted has had a highly successful commercial career to go along with his Up series, including Coal Miner’s Daughter, which won a best actress Oscar for Sissy Spacek. He’s also directed Vanessa Redgrave, Jodie Foster, and Sigourney Weaver. In an appearance in New York, quoted in the London Observer, Apted acknowledged that his interest in women actresses was in part his amends for including so few of them in the Up series: “I think I missed the boat in the Up films,” he was quoted as saying. “The biggest social revolution in my life, growing up in England has been the change in the role of women in society. And because I didn’t have enough women, I didn’t have enough choice of what options were in front of women who were building careers and having families and all this sort of stuff.”

Therein lies much of what makes the Up series so compelling. Rather than play on the melodramas that contemporary life can provide, these characters evolve in ways that are touchingly accessible. Writing in the New Yorker, David Denby says that “56 Up brings both relief and dismay. Some in the group have taken on new husbands or wives, or new jobs; the working class characters have taken on weight too. The loss of youthful beauty—the thickening of necks, the rounding of bellies, the wrinkles—is upsetting, but the added weight has a kind of reassuring fullness, like moss growing on the trunk of an aging tree.”

Each film recaps in quick takes the children passing through the stages of adolescence, young adulthood, and middle age, and in this version, for those whose marriages or remarriages endured, there are grandchildren. What is most striking is that there are few shocks in the evolution of their personalities. The biggest surprise is that the liveliest of the seven-year-olds, Neil, has struggled with a variety of psychological problems but in 56 Up he seems to have found his calling as a lay preacher and an activist among Liberal Democrats in Northern England. Because so much time has been covered, the movie is now 138 minutes long, and it does feel sometimes as though we are meandering through their early old age. As Denby writes, “these men and women don’t seem to have the seething ambitions and restlessness of so many Americans. . . . They may be happier than we are but they’re also less colorful.”

Of the original fourteen children, one dropped out early on, and another has returned after a long hiatus to promote a band he started in Liverpool. None have died, nor have any been crippled with serious illness. The relatively placid nature of their collective saga shouldn’t be a deterrent to interest in the series. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Apted was asked what he had learned in this latest installment:

I discovered that despite the fact that I thought it was going to be depressing, that people would be concerned, disgruntled, wary of the future, (but) the people who found a solid base in life with their families—as opposed to others who put their initiative into careers and moneymaking—there was some payoff for that. And I could relate that in a sense to my own life.

Who knows what they’ll be like at 63 Up? (Apted will be almost 79). But for now, Apted and his returnees are so interesting because they have, on the whole, made good lives from what they had at the outset, and in 56 Up, they are starting to reflect in valedictory ways on what that means.