‘Where are the British Shirley Temples?’ The employment of children in British film studios

By Richard Farmer

The issue of exploitative child labour in Britain might bring to mind images of Victorian chimney sweeps and six-year-old factory hands, and might almost as easily be dismissed as having been tidily resolved by a series of mines, factories and education acts passed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which eventually prohibited the full-time employment of youths of compulsory school age (12 at the time that the Employment of Children Act was passed in 1903, rising to 14 in 1918 and 15 in 1947) or the part-time employment of those two years younger. However, until 1963, laws intended to protect children from exploitation in the workplace made it more difficult for British film producers to employ them in studios, precluding – in theory perhaps more than in reality – the emergence of ‘British Shirley Temples’ (Whitley 1935: 26). This prompted frequent, and frequently repetitive, debates about whether children could work on the films, at what age and for how many hours a day, the impact that such work might have on their education, and even whether the absence of a paying audience watching them perform meant that a film studio (in contrast to a theatre) constituted a factory for the purposes of child labour. 

Daily Mirror, 20 Sept 1935

This, though, was not a matter that the British film industry was willing to accept lying down, and British producers were determined to get children in front of the cameras. There were a number of reasons for this. First, children constituted an important audience, and were believed to want to see themselves represented in British films. Second, they were essential to the production of documentary or educational films, for instance those dealing with neonatal and infant healthcare. Finally, as a report produced in 1950 noted, they were needed ‘for ordinary feature films because without them the British film is unrealistic, in so far as all families would have to be shown as childless’ (Report 1950: ¶155). 

Perhaps most importantly, child actors were often very popular. Such was the box-office appeal of imported child stars like Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, and such was the money that they earned for overseas producers, that in 1933 the films section of the Federation of British Industries (FBI) resolved that ‘in the opinion of the British film production industry, it is essential that the employment of children in film studios in Great Britain shall be permitted’ (Anon 1933: 3). Walter Mycroft of British International Pictures (BIP) proclaimed that ‘We must have children to compete with films from the United States’ (Mannock 1935: 2), whilst other commentators noted that French and German films starring children had also found an audience in the UK, and that the production of big-budget pictures were being held up or abandoned because of the prohibition on the employment of children (Anon 1936: 8). The issue of tidying up the laws concerning the employment of child actors was one that that labour and management could agree on, and a joint delegation from the FBI and the Trades Union Council visited Whitehall in December 1936 in the hope of that they might persuade the Home Office to incorporate specific provisions concerning the employment of child actors in studios in a proposed Factories Act (National Archives: LAB 14/396). They failed.

The difficulties associated with engaging children in British studios led to some youthful British actors moving to Hollywood to pursue fame and fortune. London-born Freddie Bartholomew was ten when in 1934 he moved to America so that he might take a leading role in MGM’s David Copperfield (1935). As British law would not have permitted him to leave the country to take up paid work overseas, his engagement could only be confirmed during a suspiciously well-timed ‘holiday’ in New York (Whitley 1935: 26), although Bartholomew’s estranged father almost succeeded in putting the kybosh on the contract by telling the British press that Freddie had been engaged whilst still in England (Behlmer 1972: 73-4).

Child stars moving in the opposite direction could find themselves in trouble. In 1949, 12-year-old Bobby Driscoll, who had already appeared in films such as Song of the South (1946) and The Window (1949), arrived in Britain to make Treasure Island for Disney at Denham. Disney did not seek to obtain the necessary employment permit for Driscoll, in large part because of his age meant that he could not legally be allowed to work in Britain (Deane 1949: 8).[1] Driscoll, his father, and Disney were each fined £100. Treasure Island’s producers reworked their schedule, at a reported cost of $84,000 (Anon 1949a: 17),[2] to allow the young star to complete shooting as quickly as possible, claiming to have ‘too much money involved’ in the film to replace Driscoll and concerned that he might at some point be prohibited from returning to the studio (Anon 1949b: 3).

Disney felt that it, and Driscoll, were being singled out for unfair attention, noting that films featuring or starring children were made in Britain by British companies with little or no trouble, including such near contemporary productions as The Fallen Idol and Oliver Twist (both 1948). Indeed, the premiere of the latter was attended by both cabinet minister Herbert Morrison and Queen Mary, to whom child star John Howard Davies was presented. Evidently, films produced using child actors were not beyond the pale as far as the great and the good were concerned. Nor were they unusual; and some child performers such as Mandy Miller (The Man in the White Suit, 1951; Mandy, 1952; etc.) were able to make a sufficient number of films to attain a degree of stardom.

The legal restrictions on the employment of children in British film studios were therefore clearly not insurmountable. Many British producers simply gambled on working in an occasional child scene, “chancing” the common informer who may come along and denounce them to the authorities (Anon 1936: 8). Concerns about the legal repercussions of such schemes were not ill-founded, and throughout the 1930s filmmakers received summonses for employing children. Three films released in 1935 alone resulted in producers being brought before the magistrates: 

  • City Films was fined 10 shillings for each of the four summonses it received for employing four children under 12 years of age to appear in Play Up the Band whilst the film was shooting on location at Crystal Palace.
  • BIP was fined 10 shillings for each of the six summonses it received for employing six girls under 12 years of age to appear in Royal Cavalcade at its Elstree studio. The company also paid £5 5s. costs.
  • Associated Talking Pictures (ATP) paid 10s 6d. costs to dismiss charges against it relating to the employment of four Boy Scouts at its Ealing studio during the production of Look Up and Laugh. Other summonses for employing children under the age of 12, making children work after 5.30pm and making them work more than 5 hours in a day, were adjourned sine die

A few years later, Mayflower Films received 26 separate summonses for offences relating to the production of Vessel of Wrath (1938) at Elstree. The company was fined £1 for each offence, and £10 costs, despite claiming that the children, who were each paid a guinea a day, had not missed out educationally because actress Elsa Lanchester, who portrayed a mission-school teacher in the film, continued her role ‘off the set by giving … English lessons’ (Anon 1938: 6).

Child actors in Vessel of Wrath

Compared to the sizeable budgets that these films enjoyed, such fines were relatively small and might almost be understood as one of the costs of doing business in Britain. Indeed, for many years the maximum penalty that could be imposed on studios for employing children could not exceed £5 for a first offence or £20 for a second or subsequent offence (Report 1950: ¶24). Added to this was a degree of sympathy for British film producers – children were permitted, within certain guidelines, to appear on the stage or on BBC wireless programmes, so why should work in a film studio be illegal simply because there was no specific legislation that permitted it? When ATP was prosecuted in relation to Look Up and Laugh, for instance, the local council went out of its way to stress in court that although it was bound to report the breach of the law, it harboured ‘no antagonistic feeling’ towards the studio and ‘recognised the difficulties of the film industry in the making of films’ (Anon 1935: 9). 

Each of the four cases mentioned above relate to the employment of children as extras, most of whom would have been in and out of the studio in a few days. However, should a child in a prominent role be forced to give up filming part-way through production, the consequences would have been considerably more expensive, involving recasting and reshoots, and this might explain why many British filmmakers resorted to underhand tactics to ensure that their child stars could work in peace. Whilst claims that children were ‘“smuggled” into studios to film in secret’ should probably not be taken literally (Anon 1950: 5), it tended to be the case that producers held off announcing a child’s appearance until after a film was in the can. Eleven-year-old William Andy Ray’s role in The Mudlark (1950), for example, was not revealed until after shooting ended, in order to ensure that the film could be completed without the relevant authorities beating the door down (Richards 1950: 13). The mistake that Disney made when producing Treasure Island might have been to draw too much attention to the presence of its child star.

Whilst we might wonder whether the post facto announcement of child actors also worked to generate valuable publicity, such subterfuge did tend to be effective; there were few, if any, retrospective prosecutions, and local authorities sometimes found it difficult to gain access to studios to inspect for the presence of children, as the Bateson Committee’s report pointed out in 1950: ‘A justice’s warrant is necessary to authorise an officer of a local education authority to enter premises where he thinks an offence is being committed’ (Report 1950: ¶24). Some local authorities found it easier to ensure child safety in studios by coming to extra-statutory agreements with producers that permitted filmmakers to employ children on the understanding that council officers were able to ensure that a child’s welfare and education was being appropriately attended to (Report 1950: ¶24). Other filmmakers adopted a policy of engaging children as soon as they could legally be employed, and then playing them in roles younger than their actual age. This was a tactic used successfully for many years by Mary Field at the Children’s Film Foundation (Agajanian 1998: 400).

The implementation of the 1963 Children and Young Person’s Act finally provided greater clarity. The Act allowed for the first time the legal employment of younger children by providing local authority with the power to licence the employment of children under 13 years of age in roles where ‘the part they are to act cannot be taken except by a child of about their age’ (s 38 (1)). All children of compulsory school age needed to be employed under licence, and these would be granted only in instances where ‘proper provision has been made to secure their health and kind treatment and that, having regard to such provision (if any) as has been or will be made therefor, their education will not suffer.’ (s 37 (4)). Playing the title role in Oliver! (1968), 8-year-old Mark Lester benefitted from the provisions of the new act, spending three hours on set each day and receiving lessons in ‘a special schoolroom built in the studios’ under the careful watch of ‘two trained teachers’ (Short 1967: 15). 

Mark Lester in Oliver!

Despite the implantation of the 1963 Act, Oliver’s producers still claimed to be wary of announcing Lester’s involvement in their film, citing concerns that they might face prosecution under the Employment of Children Act, 1903. Whilst such claims made for good copy, especially in relation to a film that took the mistreatment and exploitation of children as a central theme, we should also note that during the decades it took parliament to pass legislation permitting the employment of children in film studios, a sense of confusion regarding child actors became engrained within the British film industry. But whilst we should be grateful that children are properly cared for and educated whilst working in British studios, the question of child labour legislation and its impact on film production should also shine a light on the wide range of regulations that affect studio working practices and the lives of all who are employed there.

References

Rowana Agajanian (1998), ‘Just for Kids?’: Saturday morning cinema and Britain’s children’s film foundation in the 1960s,’ Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 18:3: 395-409.

Anon (1933), ‘Child actors’, Yorkshire Post, 7 December: 3.

Anon (1935), ‘Boy Scouts employed in Ealing film’, West Middlesex Gazette, 22 June: 9.

Anon (1936), ‘The £250-a-week child’, John Bull, 11 January: 8-9.

Anon (1938), ‘Child artistes in British films’, Kinematograph Weekly, 5 May: 6.

Anon (1949a), ‘British sustain Disney kid fine’, Variety, 26 October: 17.

Anon (1949b), ‘Boy star loses appeal’, Daily Mirror, 26 October: 3.

Anon (1950), ‘Child film actors move’, Daily Record, 23 August: 5.

Rudy Behlmer (1972), Memo from David O. Selznick. New York: Viking Press. Telegram from Selznick to Sol Rosenblatt, 17 August 1934.

Milton Deane (1949), ‘20th will make at least 30’, Hollywood Reporter, 6 October: 8.

P. L. Mannock (1935), ‘Allowing film children’, Daily Herald, 7 August: 2.

National Archives, Kew: LAB 14/396 – Employment of children in film studios: meeting with representatives of Trades Union Congress.

Report of the Departmental Committee on the Employment of Children as Film Actors, in Theatrical Work and in Ballet(1950). London: HMSO.

Dick Richards (1950), ‘David falls for Hollywood’, Sunday Pictorial, 30 June: 13.

Don Short (1967), ‘Haunting face of the film men’s secret Oliver’, Daily Mirror, 3 November: 15.

R. J. Whitley (1935), ‘Where are the British Shirley Temples?’, Daily Mirror, 20 September: 26.

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