Are the kids alright? A new generation of child stars on the perils of growing up in public

Child actors have never been in greater demand – so how do they set themselves apart? And more importantly, how do they ensure that their fame isn't fleeting?

A recent ITV documentary celebrating the 30th anniversary of Steven Spielberg's ET featured actor Henry Thomas reflecting on his movie debut, aged 10, as the film's young hero, Elliott, and recalling spending the entire shoot with "an overwhelming feeling that I'd be fired… [and] the acting police would take me away". It was also revealed that the then-six-year-old Drew Barrymore, who didn't take part in the documentary, had not been sure whether ET was real or not – and that her heartbreak at the bug-eyed creature seeming to die had been genuine.

All this was blithely recounted as if such stress on impressionable minds was all (bless) part of growing up. Barrymore herself, according to her 1990 autobiography, Little Girl Lost, was boozing at 11, smoking marijuana at 12 and snorting cocaine at 13. Last year the former Home Alone actor Macaulay Culkin was splashed across the front page of the National Enquirer under the headline "Addicted to heroin… six months to live!" – a claim vehemently denied by Culkin's publicist. And 26-year-old former Disney child star Lindsay Lohan seems to have made more court appearances than she has movies.

Look at the bigger picture, however, and you see that such high-profile wrecks are a salacious exception. Barrymore now has a healthy film career as an adult, while for every Lohan there are endless counter-examples, such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Leonardo DiCaprio and, in the UK, Nicholas Hoult, Christian Bale and Daniel Radcliffe.

But this is the A-list end of a much wider child acting community that has emerged in the UK since the advent of multi-channel TV in the 1990s, with its dedicated channels such as CBBC, CITV and Nickelodeon. Home-grown juvenile performers now pour out of such junior drama schools as Stagecoach Theatre Arts, whose former students include Harry Potter star Emma Watson, and which also acts as its own talent agency.

"There is now an established career trajectory – not so much crumbs at the table, but real jobs," says one veteran TV drama director. Post-Jimmy Savile, paranoia pervades the whole subject of children on TV, while to add to the BBC's siege mentality, the broadcaster was last month criticised by Ofcom for allegedly failing to ensure the welfare of a 13-year-old boy, Gregory Piper, who appeared in scenes in the BBC2 police drama Line of Duty in which he was head-butted and tried to sever a policeman's fingers with bolt-cutters. The BBC denies the claim.

Actually, within the child-acting industry, the broadcaster is seen as one of the most rigid followers of the legal requirements set out under the Children (Performance) Regulations of 1968. BBC1's Call the Midwife is one of TV drama's biggest employers of child actors, but as the show's producer, Hugh Warren, explains, just because a baby has to do little more than show up and gurgle, it doesn't mean just any infant can be employed. "People endlessly offer us their children but of course you have to license them," he says. "You have to go through the school and the local authority… it's quite a formal process."

This paperwork is undertaken for clients at the Alphabet Kidz talent agency by managing director Lisa k Balcombe, who explains the collection of medical notes, permissions from schools and records of hours worked that have to be submitted to local authorities before each job. "If they want to work abroad – and we have two boys on our books in The Borgias in Hungary – then I have to go to court to get the permission of a magistrate," she says. Chaperones have to be provided and tutors employed, Balcombe suggesting that many child actors positively benefit from the one-to-one education involved – even if the schools themselves don't always see it that way. "I've had parents having to change schools or home-school because their school won't give them time off," she says.

Alphabet Kidz operates out of a cramped office in a business park in south London, in a neighbourhood so deeply unglamorous that it might have been chosen deliberately in order to manage the expectations of star-struck parents. The agency is, however, a steady feeder of young actors into the countless TV dramas whose hunger for child performers now seems insatiable.

"Grange Hill changed everything," reckons a director who worked on Hollyoaks. "People like Tucker Jenkins [played by future EastEnders star Todd Carty]… were among the first to appear in Smash Hits [magazine]." Yet a high profile can come at a price, and Fresh Meat's Zawe Ashton tells me how she had to move school due to being bullied after appearing in BBC1's 1990s children's drama, The Demon Headmaster. A different sort of jealousy lies in wait for those seeking the sanctuary of like-minded souls at full-time performing arts schools, reckons Dani Harmer, CBBC's erstwhile Tracy Beaker, who attended Redroofs in Maidenhead. "I think it's pretty much worse if you go to a theatre school as far as jealousy goes because everyone there's striving for the same thing," she says.

Money is an opaque topic, but it's estimated that a regular child actor in a TV soap might earn £40,000 a year, while the latest BBC/Equity Agreement that can be found online details somewhat more modest fees for under-18s of £100 to £150 a day. That's not bad pocket money, and there's always the promise of a serious salary in the future – but how do you make the infamously precarious transition from young to adult actor? Drama school is the traditional route but, "Spending three years pretending to be boiling pasta doesn't cut it any more," says one director scathingly. "Degree-style drama courses are OK for the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, but for many working-class kids it isn't an option."

Jenny Agutter, now 60 and appearing with child actors in Call the Midwife, began her career in films at the age of 11. She says there is a difference between filming a child and a child actually acting. "I know very well that I was not required to act," she says. "I was required to believe in what I was doing and that's quite a different thing."

While some in the industry fear that child actors are now so plentiful that a bottleneck will occur when they all reach their twenties, Agutter advocates perseverance to today's brightest, youngest things profiled here. "I have been through that thing of 'Oh, she's a child actor, she's not going to get through,' and 'Oh, she's going to be a teenage actor…' and so on. All my life it's been like that."

Trixiebelle Harrowell, 9

'I play a little girl who's in really bad, itchy clothes,' says Harrowell of her upcoming scenes in 'Call the Midwife'. The BBC1 period drama may actually be one of the acting gigs that 'Trixie' is allowed to watch – the Channel 4 black comedy 'Bad Sugar', in which she played Julia Davis's daughter, and BBC3's teenage-pregnancy sitcom 'Pram Face' presumably constituting unsuitable viewing. She did, however, attend the premiere of her first acting role, playing Lauren in last year's acclaimed gang drama 'One Night'.

She won the part in 'One Night' after being spotted by a casting director at an Alphabet Kidz drama workshop, which she attended after being unable to find any acting workshops locally in Twickenham, and on the advice of her godmother, Cindy O'Callaghan, a former child actor herself, who happens to run the workshops.

Harrowell has also voiced one of the aliens in the Argos ads and will appear in the upcoming BBC2 comedy 'Count Arthur Strong' – but her ambition is 'to go to America and work with Will Smith', which may not be that far-fetched, given she just taped an audition for an American TV series.

If she ever changes her mind about a future career, then at least she will have some savings in the bank. 'That's Trixie's future,' says her mother, Vicky. 'It's not something she'll look at till she's 21.'

Adam Wilson, 13

As soon as our interview ends, Wilson is off to audition for a Nicole Kidman movie, and another chance to try out the American accent he has been learning by copying his US-born mother, Kim, a computer programmer married to an Englishman and living in Buckinghamshire.

Wilson has been using this State-side timbre a lot recently – as Jeremy Piven's son, Gordon, in ITV's department store drama 'Mr Selfridge' and to voice a PlayStation 3 game.

His most recent role, playing Olivia Colman's son in the upcoming ITV1 drama 'Broadchurch', required a West Country accent – and also long stays in a Bristol hotel, being 'home-schooled' by his mother, which he finds 'fun… you can kind of do it when you like, on a train, when I wake early in a hotel room.

'I do have these patches when I tell Mum, "Life's so hard, I never get to play with anyone." But I still have a couple of friends from when I went to school.'

It was enjoying the lead role in a school play that prompted a search for an agent, and although Wilson, whose role model is Tom Hanks, doesn't see many growing pains ahead – 'When you're 17 you get to play 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds a lot because they are much tougher to license' – he feels that he might like a 'proper' job one day. 'I do want to be an architect,' he says assuredly. 'But, then, it would be fun to be an actor.'

Jocelyn Macnab, 7

Macnab has some unusual reading homework tonight: 'Three scripts, all different genres,' says her mother, Maria, wryly. 'She just kept badgering me,' says Maria of her daughter's career. 'She kept asking, "How come that child's on TV and I'm not?" After about a year I sent her details off to an agency.'

Macnab secured her first role, in ITV1 drama 'The Bletchley Circle', only a couple of weeks after joining the agency, before appearing in the sitcom 'Not Going Out' and the brutal Channel 4 crime drama 'The Fear', playing the daughter of Brighton hoodlum Paul Nicholls. 'All my programmes are grown up,' she says, and later, after she leaves the room, Maria explains how the scene in which she appears to witness Nicholls snorting cocaine was actually a cut-and-paste job. Parents, incidentally, always get the script first.

Next up is another drama, 'Southcliffe' for Channel 4, while she also has a couple of radio ads under her belt, including 'my most boring one… for car insurance'.

But the work is just a bonus as far as Maria is concerned – giving Macnab confidence has been the priority. 'We got to a point when she wouldn't even walk into a room where there were people,' she says. 'Everybody noticed a difference within four weeks… it's lovely to have my girl back again.'

Would she describe herself as a pushy parent? 'It's all led by her,' she says. 'I've never seen her happier than when she's on set.'

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