56 Up returns to our screens

56 Up subject Sue Davis aged 21: but how will she look now?

Michael Apted’s groundbreaking documentary, which has interviewed a group of Britons every seven years since they were seven years old, is now half a century in the making.

The show, called Seven Up!, was never designed as a long-running venture, but it proved so popular that the programme makers returned to the subjects when they were 14, again when they were 21, and so on. And now they’re 56.

The show was based on the motto, ‘Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man’ – and it's a truly ground-breaking piece of television. It’s still impossible to watch the very first series, which is full of little boys with dreams of being astronauts and jockeys, without welling up. Discovering what's happened to them, and that the life paths have included homelessness, heartache and disappointment, is just as affecting.

The 14 children who took part in the first programme were chosen in a very deliberate attempt to represent different social classes in the 1960s, with plummy-voiced public school boys (one of whom declared that he liked to read the Financial Times), being pitched against street-wise Cockney kids.

Sue Davis was one of three friends at an East London primary school chosen, presumably, to represent the more gritty side of British life. She is pragmatic over the mixed hand life has dealt her so far. Although her first marriage didn’t work out, and she had to struggle for years as a single mother, she now has a job as an administrator at Queen Mary, University of London. She’s moved out of the East End to leafy Essex and owns her own home.

Tony Walker – who wanted to be a jockey – ended up driving cabs but moonlighting as a TV extra. The series producer, Michael Apted, once revealed that he thought Tony would end up in jail. In 35 Up Tony admitted his struggles with a monogamous relationship and by 42 Up he had famously confessed to cheating on his wife, Debbie, who chose to stand by him. 49 Up showed them as grandparents and proud owners of a house in Spain.

What started out as a programme about class has morphed into TV’s longest-running soap. You can catch it on ITV1 tonight at 9pm.