Ahead of their time: The young ones

As Theo Walcott becomes the youngest footballer to play for England. Arifa Akbar looks at the other prodigies who have achieved the same feat in their chosen fields

Hayley Mills, Aged 14, Actor to win a Film Bafta

In 1959, the teenage actress made her acting debut in the film Tiger Bay - opposite her father, Sir John Mills - as Gillie, a child who witnesses a Polish sailor killing his girlfriend and obtains the gun used as the murder weapon, thus incriminating herself. A year later, she won the "most promising newcomer" Bafta for her compelling performance, followed by a Golden Globe for the same role in 1961.

The child lead of the film was originally supposed to be a boy, but the director J Lee Thompson decided to change it to a girl after he saw her "clowning around" at the Mills' farm in Sussex. Walt Disney's wife saw Mills' performance in Tiger Bay and fell in love with her, resulting in her American film debut in Pollyanna in 1960, for which Mills won a special Academy Award. She went on to star in other successful films, including The Parent Trap, and now focuses more on stage work, including a long-running production of The King and I.

Dexter Fletcher, Aged 11, Royal Shakespeare actor in role of 'Cobweb' in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

The child actor had been treading the boards for two years before he played one of Titania's fairies in the whimsical Shakespearean comedy with the RSC. Previously, Alan Parker had cast him as Babyface in the gangster musical Bugsy Malone in 1976, when he was nine. Stage and film work followed, including roles in The Elephant Man and The Long Good Friday in 1980. Five years later, he was cast as Al Pacino's son in Revolution, after which he began making a transition to adult roles, an accomplishment not every child actor manages successfully.

He was the youthful incarnation of the artist, Caravaggio, in Derek Jarman's 1986 biopic, but it was not until his role as Spike Thompson alongside the actress Julia Sawalha in the children's television series, Press Gang, that he achieved cult stardom in the UK.

The series, which lasted from 1989 to 1993, made him a household name. Around the same time, he landed his first adult lead film role as a teenager obsessed with losing his virginity in The Rachel Papers. More recently, Fletcher appeared as a priest in Michael Winterbottom's Jude (1996) and was in Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels two years later.

Most recently, he starred in the BBC television series Hotel Babylon.

Theo Walcott, Aged 17, England football player

His name would have meant very little to most of the nation until the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, named the striker in his squad for the World Cup, despite never having watched him play a match in the flesh.

Walcott grew up in Compton, Berkshire, and it was not until he was 11 that he played his first game. Such is his natural talent that in his first season, he scored 100 goals in 35 games and is known for his speed - he ran the 100 metres in just 11.5 seconds when aged 14.

Walcott made a £12m move to Arsenal when he was barely out of his school uniform.

He became the youngest footballer to play for England when came on during the second half for Tuesday night's friendly against Hungary, beating Wayne Rooney's record. Whether or not he is picked during the World Cup, his celebrity status is guaranteed - as is that of his girlfriend and AS-level student Melanie Slade.

Ruth Lawrence, Aged 13, Oxford University graduate

This child prodigy's CV makes for astonishing reading. A year after passing her maths O-level at eight, having been home tutored by her father, Harry Lawrence, who gave up his job to educate his daughter, she became the youngest British person to gain an A in A-level pure maths - a record that still stands.

In 1981, she passed the Oxford University pre-entry exam in mathematics, coming first out of all 530 candidates, and was accepted into St Hugh's College. By 13, she and her father - who accompanied her to all her lectures - were dealing with considerable press attention after she graduated with a starred first and a special commendation, having completed her degree in two years.

She followed it up with a second degree in physics and was a Fellow at Harvard by the age of 19. In 1993, she moved to the University of Michigan where she became an associate professor but four years later she made the radical decision to emigrate to Jerusalem to become associate professor at the Hebrew University. A year earlier, she had married an Israeli mathematician, Ariyeh Neimark, and changed her name to Ruth Lawrence-Neimark.

She has since had two children and spoken of her desire to have them grow up "normally".

Daniel Taylor, Aged 16, Undertaker

Inspired by the funeral parlour documentary Don't Drop The Coffin when he was young, Taylor had long harboured the ambition to help with burials and cremations.

His dream came true this year when he became Britain's youngest undertaker. Such was his determination that he disregarded his career officer's warnings and the shocked reactions that his choice of work elicits from his friends, setting up his own work experience placement at a local funeral directors, who offered him a job when he left school.

He earns £3 an hour at Mason and Stokes in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, for dressing corpses, leading funeral corteges and helped relatives pick out coffins.

Reuben Singh, Aged 17, Self-made British millionaire

Juggling his A-levels with opening a new fashion accessory shop in his hometown of Manchester, Singh made into the Guinness Book of Records by expanding his shop into a national chain and becoming the UK's youngest self-made millionaire within the year.

Still a teenager, he launched the international RS Group of Companies of which he remains Chairman and sole shareholder. Dubbed "the British Bill Gates" by The Sunday Times, he even has his picture hanging in the National Portrait Gallery and has been paraded by Tony Blair as a model of youthful commercial vigour.

Now, at the age of 30, Singh sits on a number of government committees and taskforces, also acting as an advisor to the Prince's Trust. As one of Britain's 5 "Ambassadors for entrepreneurship", along with Sir Richard Branson and Alan Sugar, he is tasked with making business attractive.

He couples an ultimate aim of becoming a multi-billionaire with his devout Amritdhari Sikh religious beliefs, visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar every birthday. Despite houses in the US and London, Singh says his real home remains in Manchester with his Indian-born father.

Frederic Carver, Aged 21, Politician

At 21, Carver is Britain's youngest councillor, and a rising star of the new generation of Liberal Democrats. Son of the eminent archaeologist Martin Carver, Frederic is a recent graduate of Mathematics from University College London, where he achieved a 2:1 Honours degree.

On graduating, despite having no background in student union politics apart from frequenting the anti-war marches, he plunged into the world of party politics when he was elected this May for the ward of Cantelowes in Camden.

He was extremely active in the successful campaign to make Sir Menzies Campbell his party's leader, and also worked as an MP's researcher. He is known to be a tireless worker and has progressed quickly up the party ladder, and is now working on their national press and communications team in Westminster.

Dame Beryl Grey, Aged 15, Principal Dancer at the Royal Ballet

Now aged 78, Dame Beryl Grey was the youngest ever principal dancer for the Royal Ballet, performing in Swan Lake on her 15th birthday, and shortly after as Giselle at 16, and The Sleeping Beauty aged 19.

Dame Beryl joined the Royal Ballet in 1941, having won a four-year scholarship to ballet school when she was just 10. She continued as Prima Ballerina with the company until 1957, and, as such, danced almost all of the leading roles.

Until the mid-1960s, she was an international guest ballerina in Europe, South America, the Far East and US. Now a director of the Royal Opera House and vice president of the Royal Academy of Dance, Dame Beryl is known to have been hugely influential in encouraging young dancers in attitude and technique. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1988.

Rhys Jones, Aged 19, Mountaineer

The climber from Hampshire became the first teenager to have conquered the highest mountain on each continent after making it to the top of the highest of all, Everest, this month.

Jones earned his recording-breaking title hours before his 20th birthday, having previously conquered Kilimanjaro in Africa, Kosciusko in Australia, Aconcagua in South America, Elbrus in Russia and Vinson in Antarctica.

Coincidentally, he was joined on top of the 29,035ft high peak by two others including Rob Gauntlett, 19, from Sussex, who was the youngest Briton ever to have climbed the mountain.

Jones, who is teetotal, decided to climb Everest after going to a Scout lecture at the age of 14 and raised the money for his venture by himself from local businesses.

Emma Maree Urquhart, Aged 13, Published novelist

The schoolgirl became a publishing sensation after her first novel sold 50,000 copies in six weeks last year. A second print run for her Dragon Tamers had to be ordered.

The 13-year-old, from Inverness, based her novel around the adventures of a teenager who is sucked into a virtual reality game involving a dragon, in which her real life becomes threatened if she loses the game. It took her a year to write and such was the demand that her publishers received calls from collectors who asked to buy 10 copies.

The head of Aultbea Publishing, based in her home town, described her as a "genius" and anticipated sales topping six figures in the book's first year.

The daughter of an electrician who sought inspiration from JK Rowling and Terry Pratchett, she began writing short stories aged 10, writing in longhand before typing her words on a computer, and she intends to pursue a career as a novelist. When her book was launched, she said: "It has been a long ambition to write a book and get it published. I have been writing stories for a while."

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