IN TIMES of crisis, child stars are a tonic for the nation. Shirley Temple gladdened the hearts of Depressed America in the Thirties with her Miss Goody-Two-Shoes innocence. Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz and Liz Taylor in National Velvet provided a wide-eyed foil to wartime gloom.
Children on screen are cheering. Christina Ricci, eight, played ghoulish girl Wednesday in last year's Addams Family movie. 'When people see a kid running around, it sort of takes the heat off,' she says. Christina's career is on a high: her performance was called 'delightfully droll', and she is booked for the obligatory sequel. Welcome to Hollywood, baby.
But the shelf-life of most child actors is short - as one pro put it, 'once they pube, that's it'. Only a handful of them manage to translate their early promise into adult fame. Those who do grow up to be a success have emotional and financial exploitation to deal with (see Jackie Coogan, Temple, Taylor et al).
Demand for child performance is on the increase and pundits say there might even be a resurgence of the old-style child star, at least in US productions. Currently on release is Honey, I Blew Up The Kid, in which a 112-feet-tall baby runs riot. Coming this summer is The 3 Ninjas (brothers use martial arts to fight evil). And the biggest kid on the block is, of course, Macaulay Culkin - Mac as he is known to his young fans. Since the phenomenal success of Home Alone and its sequel (in which Mac always foils the nasty adults), Hollywood casting directors have been trawling stage schools and playgrounds for pre-pubescent talent in Mac's charming 'Dennis the Menace' mould.
Small actors are big business. Home Alone was the third most successful film of all time: with its sequel, it grossed pounds 580m for Fox worldwide. Premiere magazine now rates Mac as more powerful in Hollywood than Bruce Willis, Spike Lee or Woody Allen. And he's still only 12. But what sort of future awaits him once he 'pubes'? How normal or healthy is performing, let alone fame, for a child? Do pushy parents contribute to children's misery? Can Mac make the transition from world-famous kid to well-adjusted adult without grief?
His parents, Kit and Pat Culkin, manage his career. Tabloid gossip points out that the ever- sharper deals Kit is cutting benefit himself - as well as Mac - directly (the Culkins take 15 per cent of their son's earnings, said to be more than dollars 10m). 'Kit is living out what he wanted to do (acting) through Macaulay. That can be dangerous,' says Billy Hopkins, the casting director who spotted Mac when he was only six.
There is talk of Mac's tantrums ('Child star trashes hotel room]') and the stresses of being accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard and a battalion of paparazzi. But those who are close to him (such as the director John Hughes) say he is genuinely loved and cared for by his parents, thrives on the attention, and is very far from becoming the spoilt media brat.
Paul Petersen runs The Minor Consideration, a Hollywood help group for about 50 'kid actors' - aged between 20 and 65. One problem unites them: they all glimpsed an early fame that would later elude them. 'And that's the painful part,' says Petersen. The bright- eyed, taut-skinned star of The Donna Reed Show in the Sixties, he is now greying, wrinkled - and philosophical. 'People would come up to me and say 'Gee, I used to love you]' I would agonise over what I ever did to make them unlove me,' he says. He lists a roll-call of child success stories that went wrong, reflecting on the agony of Drew Barrymore, for example, who 'came out as an alcoholic, aged 14'. The Minor Consideration puts actors in touch with legal and medical specialists. 'People need help because fame is a hard drug,' he says.
Lisa Loring was eight when she played Wednesday in the Sixties television version of The Addams Family. She says she was 'pushed' into the business at the age of three, when she began modelling. 'I had to be a little adult from then,' she says. In her twenties,
an acting coach told her she behaved as if she was 40, 'and he said it wasn't attractive'. Loring blames this, and a heroin habit (she has recently been through a rehabilitation programme to get off it), on the emotional insecurity that her performance career engendered. The Addams Family did at least provide a semblance of the family life she lacked at home, she reflects. 'When it ended, I was saddened, being in the real world.'
There are as yet no studies of the effects of stress on child performers; the first is about to begin under Dr Glenn Wilson from the Maudsley Hospital in London. But Margaret McAllister, an educational psychologist specialising in children's behavioural problems, believes that a child performer's life-style, especially at the Culkin super-star level, is so unnatural that it could be damaging. 'While recognising their talent, parents should avoid giving the child the idea that it is particularly special,' she says. 'Parents must endeavour to provide balance. If children spend a lot of time with adults, they can be deprived of positive interaction with other children, and become withdrawn and self-absorbed. They should be encouraged to mix with kids outside the industry. And if their demands are constantly being met, they're unlikely to understand the give and take necessary to form and maintain good relationships.'
At the age of three or four, 'a child learns the basics of relating to other children, as well as the pleasure adult approval engenders. An overdose of that approval, and lack of interaction with other children, will lead to emotional deprivation, although this may be obscured by the rarefied circle which surrounds the child.
'The long-term effect of enouraging precociousness and superficial social skills really shows up in adulthood, when they may lack the emotional depth to express themselves as an actor or, indeed, as a person.'
McAllister believes children who are heavily involved in acting also miss out educationally. British law states that under-13s may work up to 40 days, over-13s, up to 80 days per year. (American law is more lenient.) These are actual working days, not including rehearsals or time spent learning lines (or indeed dreaming about fame). 'Generally, I'd say it is healthier for them to attend an ordinary school rather than a stage school.'
AT THE fee-paying Italia Conti stage school in London, vice-principal Anne Sheward defends the school's commitment to good educational standards. 'The kids appreciate the chance they have here, they work hard at their studies and very few drop out. Theatrical school is confidence-boosting. And, because of the video and worldwide market, they do stand a better chance than ever of making it.'
Conti takes children from 11 upwards and pupils must show potential in one of three areas - acting, singing or dancing - and be trainable in the other two. 'Our aim is not to find child prodigies, but to train kids so they can earn a living in the performing arts,' says Sheward. 'What do we look for in pupils? Charisma.' They spotted it in former pupils Naomi Campbell, now a millionaire supermodel, and the actresses Emily Lloyd and Sadie Frost (currently on the big screen in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula).
How can she differentiate between talent and keenness on the child's part and the
ambitions of that sociological phenomenon, the pushy parent? 'We try to screen for that. We are a training school first, not a working one. Most children come from school referrals. We don't get the stage-school archetype,'
Barbara Speake is a veteran trouper in the old stage school tradition. She runs her school with partner June Collins - who just happens to be mother of Phil, perhaps the most famous by-product of the Speake factory. She is keen to discuss his success (or is it hers?).
'Phil wrote his first songs here and formed his first group. He was so keen,' she says dotingly. 'And when he left there was a preparedness in him. What you can't tell is whether they have the strength of character to cope with all the flak that will get thrown at them as adult performers.'
She is piqued but not surprised that Italia Conti is claiming Naomi Campbell for its own. 'We had her from three to 14 1/2 ,' she says sharply. 'Naomi was outstanding. We did a charity event with secondhand clothes when she was 14 and you could see from how she got herself rigged up that she had a talent for fashion.'
Speake gives short shrift to child psychologists: 'Child performance is a normal thing and there's too much hype made of it. Who played the last Annie on stage?' (It was, she adds, one of her girls. 'Zoe's off now doing cabaret on ships.')
'Parents shouldn't expect fame for their children. Kids have to earn it.' Be cautious about who is managing your child, she says. 'Nobody looked more stupid than Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, with her breasts bursting out of a child's smock. She was surrounded by greedy, avaricious people. No wonder she was a psychological mess.'
Jack Wild went to Barbara Speake's school. He had a remarkable early success: at 14, he played the Artful Dodger in the film version of Oliver] But by the time he was 21, his looks were fading, the roles were drying up and he was acquiring a severe alcohol addiction. He is now 40 and has undergone a successful cure with Alcoholics Anonymous.
He was 12 when he and his older brother were talent-spotted by June Collins (he was playing football with her son Phil at the time). In exposure (if not in monetary) terms he was the British Macaulay Culkin of his times. 'After Oliver] and during H R Pufnstuf (a fantasy US series) I was constantly told that I was fabulous. When you are offered contracts worth millions of dollars, you start to believe it.' This was the flower-power era of the Sixties.
'I was smoking since I was 12. The people around me - the agents, personal and business managers - could hardly say, 'You can't have a drink.' I was employing them, after all. By the time I was 19, I thought I was God.'
At the same time, Mark Lester, the angelic boy who played Oliver in the film, was developing a drug habit. 'Acting gave me up,' he says, wryly. He is now rehabilitated and has trained to be an osteopath.
Wild never tires of relating his proudest moment - being nominated for an Oscar at 16, for Oliver] But he says he had to work constantly to pay the school fees. 'My parents were working-class and couldn't afford them. At 12, I was treated as an adult at 'work' and it was difficult for me to switch from that role at home. I grew up too quickly.'
He has worked little since his frantic youth, but can't give up acting. 'There's no buzz like performing for a live audience.'
Bonnie Langford will never live down her role as the obnoxious Violet Elizabeth Bott of the TV series Just William, whose catchphrase was 'I'll scweam and scweam and scweam]' She is now in her late twenties. She works more or less constantly, mostly in theatre - she was Cinderella in panto last Christmas, and will soon tour in Pirates of Penzance.
Langford represented the archetypal stage brat but in adulthood she seems well adjusted and content with her career. 'I was a strange kid. I was actually very quiet, sort of level and smart. It was part me, part my parents' influence.' Langford's mother, who runs a dancing school, has been portrayed as the awful, pushy, stage mum.
'My parents got a lot of flak which they didn't deserve,' says Bonnie Langford. 'I was genuinely hooked on showbiz. Nothing I did was for the money. If parents think that there is money to be made in live stage work in Britain, they should forget it. The only place to make a lot of money is the music biz and films.'
Tony Robinson is now most famous for playing Baldrick in Black Adder, but he's been performing since he was 12 (he's now 46). He says his parents insisted he stay on at grammar school rather than go to stage school. He did all the pushing himself. 'Auditions were stressful. I used to lie my arse off to get the part,' he says. 'I was appearing in the stage show of Oliver] and I felt I was encouraged to be precious and grab the limelight. I was quite obnoxious and by the time I was 14, I thought I owned the West End.' Robinson had roles in several British films. 'It didn't feel like a big deal. But at 17, when I went to drama school, my precocious child act was no longer acceptable. I had real trouble expressing myself by the time I was 20. It was painful. I was searching for the success I'd had in my teens.'
Robinson says that, in retrospect, personal make-up has everything to do with ability to cope. 'I know a lot of kids who have made the transition from childhood fame to adult obscurity with relative ease.' If Robinson didn't have a successful acting career (which he does), he has his writing skills to fall back on; one of his current projects is Maid Marian and Her Merry Men for the BBC.
RICHARD Callanan is executive producer of children's drama at the BBC, and Maid Marian, and other series such as Grange Hill, Byker Grover and Return of the Psammead which regularly feature child performers, come under his aegis. At the BBC, all child performers stay on at school, except when they are actually working on a production. As with all film, theatre and TV work, children need the parents' and the school's permission to work, and under-16s are appointed a tutor (who liaises with their school). Until the age of 16, each has a chaperone who is legally bound to ensure the child is protected from mental or physical abuse.
'Our main area of concern is longer-running series, such as Grange Hill, when they might appear for five years and become a household face,' says Callanan. 'They think they are stars - but they are not stars forever. It is a limited outlet for them. When their part comes to an end, they may need help - a pep talk, from 14 onwards, and especially before they leave us. We give them an idea of what a terrible business this is, about the unemployment and the pitfalls.'
But some do go on to regular work and greater exposure. 'Look at Susan Tully and Todd Carty, and now Shaun McGuire. They are all ex-Grange Hill actors who now have contracts with EastEnders.'
Pushy parents, Callanan says, 'can present a horrendous situation. Our directors are expert at spotting them. But you can face the stereotypical stage mum and find that the child is well adjusted and content.'
Auditions are the most stressful time. 'We might audition 200-300 kids for a leading part in a six-part television series. Lack of talent shows up immediately on screen. When you're down to four, the pressure is enormous. But once they have been cast, there is no reason for them to be unhappy. Conditions at the BBC are very controlled. In a commercial industry, such as movies, however, there might be pressure to let the cameras roll, even though the child is tired and has done its quota for the day, just to get the take.'
SHARON Harris, a children's theatrical agent, says she is vigilant when putting children forward for roles. 'I vet every single script that comes in, and if the child and its parent are unsure, I don't send them for audition.' Harris runs her agency from her home in Wembley. One of her big success stories is Shaun McGuire. There is, Sharon Harris says, a real demand for natural, kid-next-door types like Shaun, whom she spotted when he was just six years old. 'Casting directors want real kids - council-estate and gypsy-type children, especially for television.'
Harris has supplied children to productions such as Batman, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, Inspector Morse and The Bill. She doesn't want to appear anti- stage school, but has her reservations. 'Most kids at stage schools love it and they are great for breeding talent for the West End shows. But what does worry me is the competition constantly surrounding them. If one kid's always getting the best parts, jealousy is bound to occur.' The pressures in the business can be quite insidious, she says: 'If a child has a lead role in a BBC production, of course every effort will be made to keep the kid happy for the performance. The child must be on an even keel to get the shot.' Thus, on-set tutors would probably stop short of reprimanding a child before he or she goes on - even if a reproof is deserved. 'That's when kids can become aware of their importance, and it's not good.'
But Harris says she has heard few spoilt or exploited-brat stories in 10 years in the business in Britain. 'What I am concerned about is rates of pay here. A British child in a West End show might get pounds 15 a performance, while an American kid doing exactly the same part would get thousands, under US Equity rates. A kid playing a lead part in Grange Hill or David Copperfield might get pounds 35 a day. Equity says children should be paid half the union's minimum rate - they don't want to know.
'No child in this country will ever get the money of a Macaulay Culkin or even become a millionaire from show business, though some child actors do go on to an adult career - look at the soaps. I can understand how parents and agents learn to be sharp, shrewd business people in the US. There are millions at stake. But I defy you to find a rich children's theatrical agent in Britain] Most kids should accept that acting can be a nice, fun hobby, that's all.'
The article on child stars published on 28 February contained material from interviews in Channel 4's 'Big Mac or Do You Have One This Age' (transmitted on 16 February as part of the Without Walls series) without attribution. We apologise to the programme makers for this omission.
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