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

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