Child labour no fairytale

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
I am not in the business of recommending teachers' resources - God knows, the national curriculum would be in ruins if you paid any attention to most of my enthusiasms, what with Meat Loaf and drag chanteuses and square-rigged ships and rightly-forgotten melodramatic novellas.

But a Radio 4 programme last week struck me with such force that I want every child over the age of nine to listen and discuss it, and every humanities teacher to use it as a springboard for, well, everything really.

Literature, art, history, drama, morality, psychology, the nature of childhood, the illusions of adults, the nature of social campaigning. It was barely 28 minutes long, but I cannot urge the profession too strongly to hit the Radio 4 internet site, push the listen-again button, or failing that harass the network into putting it out as a CD. It was a documentary with dramatised inserts, entitled Footlight Fairies, and like all the best radio programmes it came with few pretensions.

Susannah Clapp, the critic, merely presented the story of Millicent Garrett Fawcett's reforming campaign against the exploitation of child actors and dancers in the Victorian theatre. In 1889 she won: to this day, a network of chaperonage and education and limited hours protects children in the theatre. Stagestruck moppets with their eye on the next Annie will already be aware of this; but the tale of the fight is one of those typically doughty 19th-century battles which in itself warms the heart.

What was particularly riveting, though, was that the programme did not dodge the fact that this army of stage children - some only aged five - were sometimes thorough professionals, who liked doing it. Ellen Terry looked back fondly at her days playing Prince John and Mamillius, and spoke approvingly in later life of a particularly good director who would wallop her to make her cry convincingly. "Master Betty" was such a star that the army was called out to control the crowds on his opening nights.

Nine-year-old Rose, one of Fawcett's interviewees, spoke of her terror of "mashers" trying to pick her up at the stage door late at night in the West End, as she shivered in her scanty costume, and of the long lonely journey back to the suburbs; yet she indignantly opposed the idea of restricting her hours. Evening, she said, was "the time when the public expect their diversions, Mum. Our manager says we must always please the public, it's our duty."

Meanwhile, the utter fascination of Victorian theatregoers with child fairies, monkeys, mini-demons and ghosts, and the regular presentation of all-child versions of Gilbert amp; Sullivan and Shakespeare offer in themselves material for a whole term's psychology if you're in the sixth form, and a lot of concerned discussion if you're 12 and starting to realise that you are no longer automatically "sweet".

The pleasures children and audiences got from this craze are bravely acknowledged; but then we hear of a 14-year-old "gaiety actress" who attempted suicide, jumping into the Thames; of parents who gave up working in favour of drink because they had three small daughters bringing in 35 shillings a week in the ballet, and only ever came to fetch them from the theatre on Friday nights because that was pay night. We heard MPs (and The Times, alas) resisting change and harrumphing that "if these children are not in the theatres they are in the gutter ... some of the girls go to the bad, I admit it ... but there must be small fairies!" It was riveting.

Clapp's conclusion takes it wider: "creatures onstage are shadows, and who legislates for shadows?" You could play this programme, with children's voices and issues firmly at its centre, to a citizenship class. Then you could discuss drama, parenthood, children's rights, stage illusion, employers' liability, exploitation, opportunity, how campaigners can change the law, and whether there are modern parallels to be found in the pushing of child models or underage pop stars. Then you could put it all down as a module of Victorian social history. Magic.

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