A little song for Europe

If you thought Eurovision couldn't get any more kitsch, prepare to be amazed: there's now a junior version. But is it just a bit of fun, asks Julia Stuart, or are children being exploited?
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The tears have already started. Fortunately - so far - they have been only expressions of joy. When Tom Morley appeared on television and won the final to represent the nation in the first Junior Eurovision Song Contest, the 10-year-old sobbed uncontrollably while his mother sat wet-faced in the audience. Grown men watching in pubs in his home village in Cumbria were said to have been in floods. Who knows what will happen if Tom scores nul points in the contest that takes place this Saturday in Copenhagen (as the UK entry did in the adult version of the competition in the summer)?

Those already looking for someone to blame for inflicting another version of the singing trial on us all should take it up with the Danes. In 2001, Denmark held a national televised singing contest for children, which it opened up to Norway and Sweden last year. It then approached the European Broadcasting Union, which co-ordinates the Eurovision Song Contest, with the idea of staging a version for eight- to 15-year-olds. Sixteen countries have agreed to take part. Not only will the children be singing in their own language, but (put your fingers in your ears now) they will be performing their own material. Following the original format, the presenter will then go round each competing nation one-by-one to collect the scores. Every over-rehearsed grin will be beamed live into your sitting room.

"A lot of people will tune in to it out of pure fascination to see if it can possibly be as bad as they imagine," admits Mark Wells, controller of entertainment at Carlton, which is producing the broadcast. "Eurovision obviously has a kitsch quality, and the idea of kids singing songs fills most people with utter bewilderment.

"Singing competitions are very hot at the moment with the success of Pop Idol and Fame Academy, and these events are always quite engaging for viewers. What's particularly interesting with Eurovision is that it's always the voting sequence that scores higher [viewing] ratings than the actual musical sequences. It will be interesting to see what happens this year. I don't think it will be quite as cheesy as the adult version."

Jeroen Depraetere, project manager of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, is well aware of the reputation the original version enjoys in the UK. "I'm Belgian and in our country it's seen as camp as well," he confesses. "Nevertheless, it remains the biggest television event in Europe. I don't know how it will be accepted by the audience - whether they will say it's camp as well. But I think it's more pure and gets back to the roots of the original Eurovision Song Contest."

Wells believes the winner may well come away with much more than the trophy. "Who knows what it could lead to?" he says. "Certainly I would have thought a recording contract. They will have an audience of certainly more than 100 million viewers around Europe. There are huge possibilities [for the winner]."

Our representative was chosen from more than 300 children. At his home last week, Tom was dreading the flight to Copenhagen. "I'm dead nervous because I've never flown before," he said. "I'm not thinking about winning, I'm just pleased to get where I've got to. I'm over the moon. I cannot believe I'm doing it."

Does he think he's likely to win?

"Not really. But I've got a good chance. Everybody's got a good chance. I just want to make friends with everyone. I just want to do my best, try my hardest and try and do my country proud."

What happens if he doesn't win?

"I won't be disappointed; I'll be pleased with where I get to," he insisted.

The Morley family live in a pebble-dashed terrace in Cleator Moor. His mother, Tina, is a housewife and his father, Jack, a painter and decorator. Tom has two older brothers and a younger sister. The family attend Mass every Sunday and when Tom performs he wears his rosary underneath his shirt. He said he was inspired to write his winning anti-war ballad, "My Song for the World", after seeing the victims of the Iraq war on television.

Tom's talent lay hidden until he was about six when he was asked to sing at school for his headteacher who was leaving. He chose "My Heart Will Go On", the theme tune to the film Titanic. "I didn't even know he knew the words," says Tina. "He sang it to the headmistress and I don't think there was a dry eye in the school. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up because I'd never heard anything like it. I'd heard him muttering along, but not actually singing a full song."

When Tom was seven years old he got down to the final 24 in a competition to become a band member of S Club Juniors, the children's version of the pop band S Club 7. Last Christmas, he won a local talent show and was asked to switch on the Christmas lights. He also won a contest to appear on Fame Academy with three other children.

"I'm really, really pleased for him because he loves singing," says Tina. "We never, ever dreamt he would get as far as the final eight. And then when he won it was a dream come true. My hope is that he becomes a professional singer because that's what he wants to do."

Tina insists the experience won't change him. "It's not his nature, he's a lovely little boy. Everybody who has met him says he's just so down to earth." Her son's desire to perform comes from himself, rather than the family, she adds. "We have been to competitions and seen parents there and sometimes it sickens you to see what they do, because they push and push them and the little kids maybe don't want to do it. Tom just seems to perform on the night and that's it."

One would expect the arrival of Junior Eurovision to provoke a whoop of delight from those whose business interests lie in child entertainment. But Sylvia Young, who runs Young'Uns, a talent agency for children, as well as her theatre school, is ambivalent - despite one of her pupils, a 15-year-old, being a finalist in the contest to find the UK representative and another protégée, Sarah Harrison, who is 13, representing Malta.

"I've never been particularly keen for younger performers to get involved in the pop business," says Young. "But this is different as they have to write their own songs, which is very enlightening: singer-songwriters stand a far better chance in the business. But Junior Eurovision is jumping on the Pop Idol bandwagon. I'm not keen on very young people in the music business. It's far better to keep training; anything up to 16 is too young for recording."

Sarah is keeping a level head about the proceedings. "We are not here to compete, but to enjoy ourselves and give a show, most of all to young viewers." Does she think she is old enough, at 13, to cope with the pressures of fame? Sarah sounds old beyond her years. "By the time I might become famous, the pressures will be equivalent to any other career."

Young believes that the desire to perform comes more from children than from their parents. "We're now in the era of children saying to their parents: 'I want to be in stage school' or 'I want to go for auditions' or 'I want to be with an agency'. I think it's the hype, the media. They know that it's possible to become successful."

Certainly, society's appetite for child stars - and the fortunes they can make - seems never to have been more rabid. In 2001, Declan Galbraith signed a £1m record deal at the age of nine. Last year, Demi Holborn, also nine, from Pontypool, south Wales, won a record deal and a scholarship to stage school after winning GMTV's "Tot Stars" talent contest, open to children as young as five. There has even been a child version of Stars in Their Eyes. As well as child actors and models, there are child comedians and lookalikes - the Juliet Adams Child Model & Talent Agency in London has a Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Annie, and Brooklyn and Romeo Beckham lookalikes on its books. Children can earn anything from £30 a day as an extra on The Bill, for example, to several thousands of pounds a week for a lead role in a blockbuster film.

A number of statutory regulations serve to protect the welfare of child performers. They cover such areas as the number of hours worked, chaperones and accommodation. A licence is required for all paid performers under the age of 16, which is obtained from their local authority by the potential employer. The authority has to be satisfied about the fitness of the child to do its work, its health and treatment and that its education will not suffer.

Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University who has studied the effects of fame, says he doesn't see a reason why children's talent should not be shown off, but that great care needs to be taken to protect them. "It's very hard for a seven-, eight- or nine-year-old child to know what they want," he says. "There is the potential for exploitation and manipulation. You'd hope that most of the time it's the family working with their children to lead them on the right path."

Many of the problems are associated with earning such vast sums. "We've seen child stars before who - once they hit adulthood and suddenly have loads of wealth - are on a downwards trail," says Professor Griffiths. "A lot of people have fallen out with their familial managers because they realise that they are just in it for the money."

Carlton has done a deal with Tom to collect his publishing royalties, for which they will take 50 per cent. It was, said a spokesman, standard practice for any talent show.

Organisers of the Junior Eurovision Contest insist the welfare of their contestants will be rigorously protected. "We have strict ethical rules that all contestants have to abide by," says Depraetere. "All rights, for example, remain with the kids and everything is set up with all respect to them. We want to protect them so they're not exploited. That's the main objective for this contest and it will be the main challenge in the future so nothing happens to them. Otherwise the junior contest will not survive."

Those who insist that such shows are exploitative can, of course, avoid the whole thing by switching over on Saturday. Things won't, however, be quite as easy next year when Manchester hosts the event.

'Junior Eurovision Song Contest 2003' is on Saturday at 7pm on ITV1