Pretty little babies

Child stars rarely make it to dignified maturity. Will the latest baby faces fare any better? asks Tobias Jones

Ginger ringlets, Sandy the dog, and "tomorrow, I'll love you, tomorrow...": it could only be Annie. Ten-year-old Charlene Barton is the latest incarnation of the little orphan, starring in a show which arrives in the West End this month. Whilst anyone of a sentimental persuasion loves to see little 'uns treading the boards, is it really such a good idea to ignore Noel Coward's advice: "Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington"?

Charlene's mother Lisa Barton, a deputy headmistress in Hertfordshire admits: "When we went for her first audition when she was seven there were all these girls with their bags and leotards, and I thought `do I really want to put her through this'?" Now, three years on, Barton is more enthusiastic about the enterprise: "For this production, she got the part on 23 June. It's printed on my mind."

Young actors, and particularly actresses, stereotypically have ambitious mothers, vicariously fulfilling their own ambitions ("sparkle, Shirley, sparkle," invoked Temple's mother from the wings). Barton, while rightfully proud after seeing her daughter fend off competition from 1,000 other hopefuls, is far from the pushy mother of myth. "Charlene's enjoying it at the moment and that's all that matters. The company has a children's administrator, and I act as her chaperone, chauffeur and entourage. The pay isn't exorbitant. We're certainly not doing it for the money. Charlene's very astute and she knows that education is a priority."

Charlene, a Manchester United supporter, is far from being a prima donna. She has had her hair dyed from a strawberry blonde to a vibrant ginger, but her reactions are like any child's; slightly shy in interview, she says she gets a little thirsty and nervous before going on stage. "Sometimes," she adds, "I do wish I could go on holiday," but she clearly enjoys her work. "I have played Annie before. I really like her character because she's tough and determined to find her parents. It's exciting and fun being on stage. My friends are really pleased, and my whole school are coming to see it in London."

It's probably hard for such success to go to your head whilst doing previews in Bromley rather than Beverley Hills: the adulation at the curtain call, says Charlene, "is slightly strange". According to conventional wisdom, the career trajectory of a child star is drug addiction, an eating disorder, then, most painful of all, abject obscurity. If you don't die young (River Phoenix, or Little Bobby Driscoll), you grow up dysfunctional (Michael Jackson, Drew Barrymore). Chances are you'll make a bad marriage too young (Elizabeth Taylor and, presumably, Macaulay Culkin), or too late (the fading starlets Brooke Shields and Tatum O'Neal banked on the reflected glory of tennis pros Andre Agassi and John McEnroe).

In the early days of Hollywood, having a pre-pubescent starlet made box-office success a certainty. In every silent movie there was always a vulnerable waif, dangerously close to coercion or seduction, only to be rescued at the final scene. The audience, cooing and oohing, lapped up this image of innocence, but it was soon shown to be a sham.

When the film director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in 1922, the young Mary Miles Minter's nightgown was found in his closet, and he had, in all probability, supplied another nymphet, Mabel Normand, with cocaine-filled peanuts. The innocence was further sullied by Charlie Chaplin, who took various child brides (including Lilita McMurray, whose name inspired Nabokov's Lolita); like Errol Flynn and later Roman Polanski, Chaplin enjoyed the underaged.

Our distaste for child stars is now based firmly on Nineties puritanism, and our concern about fetishising pre-pubescents: a three-year-old Jodie Foster baring her bottom in an ad for tanning lotion, the nude childhood poses of Shields and Natassia Kinski, seemingly au naturel in the Seventies, now come across as dangerously close to kiddie porn. Graham Greene said the same about the all-singing, all-dancing Shirley Temple in 1937, accusing Twentieth Century Fox of "procuring" her for "immoral purposes" (he had to pay a hefty compensation).

There is also the cloying mawkishness which we can no longer stomach. The stars of the past had silly names like Louise Lovely or Arline Pretty, and they all starred in flicks preoccupied with their cutesy size (Mary Pickford's films included Little Pal, The Little Princess, Such a Little Queen, and Little Annie Rooney). But most of all, now that we know children, too, can be killers and rapists, the high-pitched voices, the dimples and curls and coquettish smiles, are less appealing. And, jealous of such people in their prime, we eagerly await the acne, puppy fat and tabloid revelations of a dangerous addiction.

So goes, at least, the very conventional wisdom. But the reality, in Britain at least, is different. It is obvious that the protection of children in the industry is thorough; only last month legislation was passed such that children must have a licence to work (they were previously allowed four days work every six months unlicensed). There is a statutory maximum of six hours a day, and 40 days performing a year, for children; and if they are going abroad to work they must visit Bow Street magistrates court and report to the embassy when they arrive. And the babies in most films you see will be twins so they can be rotated during the filming.

Gaynor Sheward runs the Italia Conti agency which has produced such luminaries as Louise, Patsy Kensit, Naomi Campbell and Leslie Ash. "Payments have to be made out to the children, and one-third legally has to be banked until their 16th birthday," says Sheward. "It seems a very good law, brought in because of problems in Hollywood. We're not so paranoid about the A-list or B-list as they are in the States, and we simply don't have the money over here. Our children are like any others, not all wearing make-up with ringlets and ribbons."

Anna Scher established her own children's theatre 30 years ago to offer opportunities to working-class kids; in that time it has become the opposite of the "beautiful people" ethic. With the likes of Kathy Burke, Pauline Quirk and Patsy Palmer amongst its alumni (the rump of Eastenders were pupils at one time), the waiting list for enrolment is 3,500 long. She sighs loudly when I ask her about the problems associated with child stars. "I absolutely loathe the words `star' and `fame'. I won't allow them in theatre. I tell my children that acting is like dentistry, it's just a job of work, and they have to earn their success. Of course it's a precarious profession but that's why you mustn't put them on pedestals or put them under pressure. Star status can unhinge, so I have no time for media hype." Scher will not let her students do any advertising or modelling: "I don't want children to be known for their cute looks, or for others to feel marginalised."

All of which is in stark contrast to America. Chris Baldock, a choreographer who has taught at Italia Conti, says: "American attitudes differ entirely: they're so cut-throat about getting where they want to be. Ambition is instilled in the kids very quickly, with beauty pageants and the like. Here it's more a hobby, or simply how we earn our crust."

"When we interview," says Vanessa Brown, head booker at the Truly Scrumptious children's agency, "we look as much at what kind of parents are involved as the kids. The children have to be grounded by their parents, even though most of the work is very down to earth: for nappies, school uniforms, football kits and acne creams." The rewards, though, are ample: up to the age of three, it's pounds 45 per hour, pounds 90 per hour for the best teenagers.

With so much money sloshing around, Dr J Proctor, an educational psychologist, admits: "It would be difficult for any of us - let alone children - to deal with such a surfeit of all we desire; some children find themselves in a situation which is rarefied and abnormal, so it's very necessary for them to keep links with the usual settings and age groups they're used to. Adults who are involved have a great responsibility to make sure these ties aren't severed."

Another concern is that a child's education might suffer. (Elizabeth Taylor famously grumbled: "How can I concentrate on my education when Robert Taylor keeps sticking his tongue down my throat?") "Charlene will only miss half a day of school on alternate Wednesdays when there's a matinee," says her mother.

But the main danger is that precocious acting can become, rather than a leg-up on the celluloid ladder, the kiss of death for any career: the youthful looks always being remembered when you're trying to grow up. Mary Pickford, having bobbed her curly locks in 1929, complained about the ensuing outrage: "You would have thought I had murdered someone and in a sense I had." In fact, many have managed to grow out of their early notoriety: starring in a Ribena ad didn't foil Michael Portillo's political ambitions, and Martyn Lewis is now better known as a news presenter than as the baby face of Cow and Gate food. Nor did anyone in Genesis seem to mind that Phil Collins was a youthful star in The Artful Dodger.

Helen Shapiro was the archetypal child star, having hits in the early Sixties while in her early teens. "It is a double-edged sword," she says. "I kept youth-club friends and had a strong family background. I did go through a stage, in the Seventies, when I wish I had started later; I would have been more able as a performer. But we were more innocent then and the business was run by people with a knowledge of artistry, rather than by hard-nosed lawyers. Now it seems like there aren't any children any more, as if we're all adults."

Of course, when opportunity knocks, not everyone can cope. Lina Zavaroni was ten years old when she suffered from anorexia after a chart hit. Martin Lester (star of the Sixties film Oliver, now an osteopath) sunk without trace. But they are the cases everyone hears about, rather than the successes like Robert Duvall (a youthful, leading light in To Kill A Mockingbird with Gregory Peck), Christina Ricci (daughter in The Addams Family and now starring in various independent productions) and Juliette Lewis (formerly the daughter in the National Lampoon films). It may be that putting your daughter on the stage isn't so dangerous after all.

`Annie' opens at the Victoria Palace Theatre on September 22

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Travel
travel
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
arts + entsBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
people
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Hydraulic Power Pack Design Engineer

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I recruit for contract mechanical design...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    SCO Supervisor Electrical

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client based in the Midlands is looki...

    Ecommerce Executive

    £20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Ecommerce Executive Working with an...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices