Jack's the lad for stage hopefuls

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Don't put your daughter on the stage was the advice to Mrs Worthington. It was advice Donna Hanford and her financier husband, Jason, were more than happy to ignore.

Their son Jack reputedly became the highest-paid child actor in advertising as the brown-eyed star of the Safeway's commercials, though the fee was secret. Daughter Scarlett is set to follow suit for the Danish food chain, Netto. At the age of 21 months, she makes her screen debut next Monday.

But though acting income is a useful addition to school fees, and some families will go to dramatic lengths to give their youngsters the chance of success, few will become a Jack Hanford and end up with thousands in the bank.

Jackie Patten, of the Young'uns agency, said that over the years there had always been one child in an advertisement who caught the public imagination. Patsy Kensit, the actress, for instance, made the peas go pop for Bird's Eye.

But many children are successful actors without instant recognition or even much money. The big West End shows might pay pounds 20 to pounds 25 a performance, but under-13s can only do 40 shows a year.

However, much prestigious work, such as for the Royal Shakespeare Company, pays considerably less. "But the parents get a kick from seeing their children on stage and enjoying themselves," Mrs Patten said.

Not that being stage-struck is the preserve of parents alone. Joanne Hawes, who looks after children in shows including Oliver! and Miss Saigon, said: "Some children are so desperate to take part they pester their parents who haven't had anything to do with theatre before to let them do it."

One mother of a stage-struck son said at acting classes there were many pushy middle-class parents who saw drama as a route to fame and fortune.

"They see their kids as potential Macaulay Culkin gold-mines," she said.

But working-class parents were just as pushy given the chance and were noticeable at open auditions where anyone can turn up. "It's their big chance and they'll kick you down the stairs if necessary."

David Shute, who made the Netto commercials, said they normally used children who were already on agents' books. He added: "If mum is on the books of a casting agent, she should know that television shoots are long and boring and not particularly glamorous."

But the Anna Scher Children's Theatre, London, will not allow its under- 16s to take part in commercials. "It interferes with their education," a spokeswoman said.

Yet where Birds of a Feather stars Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson once trod, many others wish to follow. The school takes names from the age of two and there is a waiting list of 2,500.

Stephanie Manuel, principal of the Stagecoach Theatre Arts schools, has seen her business expand from three centres nine years ago to 140 this year.

She plays down hopes of fame and fortune and believes that many parents want their children to get the benefit of the lessons.

"Parents realise it is tremendously character-building in terms of self- esteem and communications skills," she said.