63 Up star Neil Hughes: From sleeping in sheds to Lib Dem councillor

The Lib Dem councillor, who first appeared on the show as a seven-year-old in 1964, spoke to The Big Issue ahead of 63 Up airing tonight

In May 1964, first-of-its-kind series Seven Up! introduced British viewers to fourteen seven-year-olds carefully picked from across the UK. Revisiting them every seven years, it checked in with them as they grew up. Their goals and interests changed and careers were forged, but the path taken by Penrith’s Neil Hughes stood out.

Hughes was living homeless in the Highlands when producers checked in with him for 28 Up. After another seven years had passed, he was no longer homeless but gripped by mental illness. But in 42 Up, he had carved out a place for himself as a Liberal Democrat councillor, a position he still holds today.

Would the seven-year-old who first appeared on the show, confidently stating that he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, be surprised by where life has taken him?

“He wouldn’t have considered such things,” Hughes says. “But on balance, I have no regrets about participating.”

The premiere of 63 Up follows Monday’s launch of Love Island series 5. The former is less likely to whip up a millennial Twitter frenzy than the latter, but it raises questions about the faces of reality television – there has been widespread criticism of how we treat our real-life characters and calls for proactive mental health care from networks.

To have nearly the entirety of ones life depicted over the years might be the most surreal concept of all – but is it the most authentic?

Look at George Galloway. Where is he now?

Hughes doesn’t watch TV (or own a mobile phone), but he has caught fragments of conversation surrounding reality TV, and isn’t convinced that it’s an entirely objective portrayal of a person.

“From what I read and hear, appearing in some of these programmes has rarely done anyone much good. Look at George Galloway [who appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006], another would-be ‘politician of the people’. Where is he now?” asks Hughes over email.

The councillor, also a lay preacher, is a self-described eccentric. He’s already penned an autobiography, which is “currently languishing unpublished in the USA”, that is a record of his time sleeping rough. A combination of mental illness and self-doubt was an important factor in his falling into homelessness, he says.

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“But also – even in those somewhat distant days of a tolerably fair benefits system – sometimes not receiving my due ‘giro’ on time pushed me into real difficulty”.

Hughes found that the struggle to get a reasonably-paid job trapped him in homelessness, all the while he tried to navigate a housing sector saturated by private landlords unwilling to take on tenants who were on benefits.

He was able to pull himself out of homelessness through “the sound advice, wise counselling and sensible, constrictive actions of others”. That meant being given a hand up by the ’70s and ’80s predecessors of the DWP – who back then “still had a job and a social responsibility to be proud of”. His Christian faith helped too, he says.

Hughes unsuccessfully stood in the 2010 general election but hasn’t lost sight of his political goals. If he was ever elected to Parliament he would make it a top priority to take down the “unfair benefits system”, he says.

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Homeless Neil at 35 years old in 1992. Image: ITV

But the show also had a part to play. It introduced him to Bruce Balden, another participant, who reached out to Hughes before 42 Up had been recorded. He put Hughes up in his London home before helping him find a flat. The security meant Hughes could work towards a degree from the Open University before he found his footing in local politics. Balden is his “closest male friend,” he says, “a thoroughly reliably ally in times of the very greatest trouble”.

The councillor doesn’t yet commit to taking part in a 70 Up, and instead insists he would like to spend the next years “carry[ing] on being [himself]”.

He adds: “That can sometimes be quite a challenge itself”.

63 Up airs June 4, 5 and 6 at 9pm on ITV.