Getting children’s full attention is hard enough in a regular classroom, but on a film set or tour it’s another matter entirely. Adi Bloom takes five with the tutors of young actors and discovers the truth about glamour and diva moments
Lights. Camera. Teach. As a beginning to the working day, it certainly hints at more glamour than the tolling of the start-of-school bell. There is the potential for exotic locations, for sneak previews of films in progress, and for carrying your autograph book to work, alongside your register and laptop.
But as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Hollywood gossip knows, working with child actors carries the equal potential for a class filled with child-sized arrogance, substance misuse and diva tantrums.
“There are various reasons why people go into this job,” says Jules Corkhill. “It is glamorous, to an extent. There’s the excitement: you get the screaming fans, and it’s very exciting to watch. But the other side is that you can be away from home for a long time.”
Corkhill, who has worked for several years with school-age contestants on Britain’s Got Talent, came to the job via the decidedly unglamorous world of home tutoring. “I did that for many, many years,” she says. “I was used to teaching children one-to-one in that situation.
“There are far more people wanting to do this work than actually manage it. People like the idea of the excitement of it. But it’s very different from being in the classroom.”
Legally, children under the age of 16 are required to have 15 hours of tutoring every week (each day spent at school counts as five hours of that total). This, however, has to be fitted around what is often a long and tiring day of filming. On occasion, therefore, on-set teachers find that they have to compete for their pupils’ time. “We have some kids who have really horrendous mothers,” says tutor Annie Bright. Bright’s former pupils include a pre-fame Keira Knightley, whom she describes as “a very diligent girl”.
“Some film companies wouldn’t have mothers on set because they were pushy. Some will start telling the director what to do. Or if they want to curry favour with them, they’ll say, ‘Oh, it won’t hurt them’, if they carry on filming instead of studying.”
“It’s very, very demanding for children,” says Corkhill. This is particularly true of the Britain’s Got Talent tour, when an entire day may be spent on the tour bus, culminating in an evening’s performance. “There are times when children are simply too tired to do their work. But, as in school, you make a decision whether that child has a legitimate reason not to do it.”
In order to be taken out of school for filming, a child has to be awarded an official licence. Importantly, this licence is granted not by the film or television company but by the child’s school. The school, therefore, can revoke the licence at any point.
“I worked on a BBC programme with lots of children in it,” says tutor Hazel Capal. “On the first day of filming, the director got the children, tutors and chaperones over and said, ‘You’re here because your schools have given permission.’ So they knew that, at certain points during filming, they were going to have to do their schoolwork.”
Capal prefers not to publicise the productions she has worked on, but they include the biggest child-focused films of the past decade, starring some of the highest-profile child actors in the world.
On one film shoot, 12 secondary-aged children were brought in for a crowd scene. All had been set work by their teachers and were expected to complete this work during the period of filming.
At the end of the shoot, the director announced that he would need the children for one more day. “One boy hadn’t finished all the work that he’d been set,” says Capal. “And the school wouldn’t give him a licence for that last day.” She pauses. “I was working on a BBC drama a couple of months ago and two little girls started saying, ‘Do we have to work today? We wouldn’t be at school anyway, because there’s an election, and they’ll be using the school for voting.’ I told them the story of what had happened to that boy and they knuckled down immediately.”
Interestingly, the diva in question was not a child star or film headliner, but an extra in a crowd scene. “You get children who come in for a couple of days - they’re extras or have small parts,” says Corkhill. “They’re more likely to think, ‘Oh, I’m only away from school for a couple of days. I’ll catch up when I get back.’ In my experience, they’re more likely to be arrogant and blase about the situation.”
The children Corkhill works with on Britain’s Got Talent divide fairly neatly into two categories: seasoned professionals, often with a stage- school background, and complete unknowns, thrown suddenly and unexpectedly into the public eye. “Children enter on spec, and then they’re surprised at having got through to the live finals,” she says. “It’s a massive cultural shock for them. They’re suddenly very recognisable. Basically, they jump on a tour bus and everywhere they go they’re recognised by screaming fans. It comes as a real surprise.
“Schoolwork becomes an element of stability. It’s an element of normality for them. Because you’re with them all the time, you become more of a mentor, really - for children and for parents, because the parents won’t have experienced this before.”
While stereotypes might portray stage-school graduates as stardom-seeking proto-divas, on-set teachers insist that they are, in fact, admirably businesslike in their approach to schoolwork. “At stage school, they know that they have to do schoolwork all morning and in the afternoon they have performing arts lessons: dance and drama and whatever,” says Capal. “They may make a face when I call them to come in, but they know it’s part of the contract.”
Indeed, Capal is the only tutor who admits to witnessing prima donna behaviour from a child star. “I had one child who really did play up,” she says. The boy had previously appeared in a West End play and was now working with Capal on a children’s TV series. He later went on to appear in a Roman Polanski film. “He really was rather sure of himself. He needed to knuckle down and do his schoolwork, and he really didn’t want to. He played up, didn’t do his work, dragged his heels.”
The boy was in his early teens, so there was no question of “just keeping him going for six months” until his period of statutory schooling was over, Capal says. But after the Polanski film, he did not work again. “It could well be that the education authority felt he wasn’t working and couldn’t with a clear heart give him a licence again. Or maybe it was all a bit much for a 13-year-old.”
It is not just the pupil-actors who are under pressure. Or, more accurately, the pupil-actors’ pressure can often rub off on the people around them. “They might do only one tiny scene in a whole day,” says John Danielson, an FE lecturer for 20 years, who now tutors secondary pupils filming in the North of England. “Where an adult will put up with it, they get fed up and say, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing this bloody scene all day.’ I’ve got a line: ‘Well, that’s the process of stardom, my dear.’”
Teaching on set, Danielson says, is markedly different from any other teaching he has done. For a start, the role is often purely supervisory: pupils’ schools will provide them with the work they need to cover during their days on set. “The definition of tutoring is that it’s not your responsibility to set them work,” he says. “But you have to be prepared to go through it with them, if they don’t understand it.
“It’s not unmitigated access to the internet. It’s not playing games. They will all sneak a game in if they can. You have to really, really keep on your toes. It’s a question of adapting the style you had in the classroom to a new form of tutoring.”
Lessons are often ad hoc: a director will call over the tutor during a lull in filming and suggest that this might be a good time for some impromptu tuition. And if a child is genuinely too tired for a lesson, adjustments can be made: one week’s hours carried over to the next week, for example. “The main thing is that other children see that the child isn’t getting away without doing the work,” says Corkhill. “That is the most difficult scenario. A live tour can be very unsettling, so it’s good to feel there’s some normality in their lives.”
To help cope with the unfamiliarity - and because the situation is, fundamentally, an artificial one - the teacher-pupil relationship is more informal than it would be in school. This can require its own adjustments. Behaviour deemed too schoolteacherish - treating pupils as a class rather than as a group of individuals, or calling for silence - rarely goes down well. “They call me by my first name,” says Corkhill. “They see me at dinner, at breakfast. We have lunch together. They see me lugging my suitcase. They see me when I’m tired. I wear jeans. There’s more of an air of familiarity.”
“It’s very much a pastoral role as well,” agrees Danielson. “Kids will tell you who they like or don’t like and say, ‘Oh, that director’s a cow. She’s always horrible to me.’ The times I have said, ‘You chose this. You know it’s not glamorous.’ They say, ‘Well, I suppose I’m being paid.’ There are ups and downs.”
Unaccustomed to earning a salary, child actors could be excused for believing it vastly increases their importance in the world. Teachers, then, qualify as staff, existing purely to serve their prematurely moneyed needs. “Boys in particular think that they can muck around,” says Bright. “They think, ‘I’m doing this role and I don’t need to be bothered with all my lessons.’ As far as I’m concerned, they’re just kids and they need to be taught. I’ve never heard anyone report back that this kiddie was so hard to work with because he was such a snotty little devil.”
“I think diva behaviour comes out in the evenings,” says Corkhill. This is particularly true, she says, of Britain’s Got Talent, where children are required to perform in an evening show. “They’re buzzing from the show, the autograph requests and the crowds of people, and they don’t want to go to bed. So I think parents bear the brunt of that behaviour. What the children get away with then depends on what their parents allow at that point.”
In fact, she says, tutors rarely have sufficient time with pupils to influence their behaviour or their attitudes, anyway: these have already been inculcated by parents and schoolteachers. The tutor’s role is merely to respond to the existing situation. In many cases, this situation is one of single-minded hard work and determination. Despite the rags-to-riches myths that reality TV promulgates, this is what it actually takes to be successful.
“Children regularly come into my trailer and say, ‘Can we sit down and do some work with you?’” Corkhill says. “They’ll have developed a work ethos over many years and it’s not going to disappear if they’re spending a month filming. If they’re hard-working high achievers, they’re not going to throw that away.
“On the whole, children feel privileged to be doing what they’re doing. And if their schooling is affected, they’re not going to be able to do it again. They want this to go on and on. So they need to be on their best behaviour.”
One girl, for example, was preparing for her 11-plus exam while she was filming. Each morning, when Corkhill arrived in the schoolroom, the girl would already be there, waiting for her. She went on to pass the exam and attend grammar school. Meanwhile, Britain’s Got Talent, which runs through the GCSE season, has on occasion hired a helicopter to airlift pupil- performers to their schools for exams. “I guess the parents and the school just have to decide whether children can be taken out of school,” Corkhill says. “I think the school generally feels that filming is a massive learning experience for children. And there is a lot of time sitting on the bus, so they can use that time to revise.”
Few will make it
Of course, for every child actor who goes on to achieve success as an adult, there are countless more whose film careers peak in prepubescence. “An amazing number don’t want to be adult stars,” says Danielson. “There are some real Shirley Temples” - a reference to the 1930s child star who went on to become US ambassador to Czechoslovakia - “who are quite content with what they’ve done and don’t know if they want to do it as adults.”
Capal, meanwhile, usually finds time for a quiet chat with her charges about the need for a rounded education. “We use examples, such as the children in Grange Hill. They all did really well at the time, but now they’re working as decorators and hairdressers. They’re not working as famous actors. I tell the children they’re really lucky, but that it’s good to keep schoolwork up because you’re not necessarily going to get work when you’re older.”
She tutored one teenager during his time in a West End show and later saw him go on to work at the Disney Channel. Although he was past the age of statutory tuition, he had continued nonetheless, and was preparing to sit his A levels. When he saw that Capal was tutoring two younger children, he came in to speak to them. “Keep up your schoolwork,” he said. “I’m lucky - I’m working now. But this could stop any minute and I need something else to do.” He was thinking of going to university, he added, “because you never know when it’s all going to fall apart”.
And, even if it does not, a clear head often hints at maturity and foresight, both of which will serve actors well. When Bright recalls her time with Keira Knightley, she remembers a down-to-earth practicality and clear-eyed thoughtfulness. “What are your hopes and aspirations?” Bright asked the actress at one point. Knightley replied: “I want to go to university, but after that I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll just take it one step at a time.”
“I thought, ‘That’s quite grown-up for a 13-year-old’,” Bright says. “I thought, ‘This girl will go far’.”
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