Children, Whitney Houston believed so lyrically, are our future. Though we might question Whitney’s wisdom in general – after all, she married Bobby Brown and became a crack addict – she was, in this respect at least, correct. And as in life, so in soap.
“Hatch” is one of soap’s key tenets: children are vital to a show’s survival, not least because the practice of baby- making provides the engine for that other soap essential, “match”.
Yet juvenile characters can be pesky in a plethora of ways, and that’s even before they get themselves snatched by that perennial of soap desperadoes – the childless woman, unhinged by either her infertility or her own baby’s death.
Of course, there are practical problems with child actors. Strict laws govern how long children may work: on TV, a maximum of five days in any seven-day period. Between the ages of five and eight, for example, they can be on set for no longer than three-and-a-half hours without taking a one-hour break, and after each 45 minutes of actually working they must stop and have a short rest.
Child actors must be chaperoned, and those still at school must also be licensed by their local authority for performing in term time – under-13s may do a maximum 12 hours a week – and given a tutor. All in all, it’s a lot of faff, and often for stage-school brats who are irksomely cute, or simply can’t act.
But all this red tape pales to pink when compared with what many would argue is a more fundamental problem with child characters: they’re just not interesting, except perhaps to children in the audience. Whether they’re asking for trips to Alton Towers or dinners of chicken nuggets, falling into abandoned mine-shafts or other kinds of jeopardy, or else playing “hilarious” pranks on curmudgeonly neighbours, child characters are boring.
Even before they’re born, they’re boring and it must be with dread that any actress learns that her character is due to be due. As soon as your character begins to show, you must don a series of increasingly bulbous (and heavy) prosthetic bellies, before inevitably going through labour, all sweaty screeching and hollering to high heaven.
Who can forget the extraordinarily vociferous labour of Coronation Street’s Fiz on the night of the tram crash? She raised more racket than the destruction of the corner shop and the Kabin combined.
Then, once the baby has arrived, there are months of pushing around a pram (which is, of course, empty) or for ever saying, “I’ve just put him/her down for a sleep” or making other excuses for why your newborn isn’t glued to your breast.
Then when they’re toddlers, like Walford’s Oscar Branning or Amy Mitchell, or older children like Coronation Street’s Aadi and Asha Alahan, it feels as if they are to be dispatched to a mysterious 24/7 nursery, only returning full-time when they’ve become troublesome teens.
Of course this odd absence is because of child labour laws. Even those who don’t have children know how all-consuming they are of time and attention – which may go some way to explain why those people don’t have children.
And yet children keep on appearing in soaps, either by the traditional method or by other means. Even gay couples aren’t spared, as if no one’s complete without the ominous patter of tiny feet. Necessary it may be, but in soap it’s a sound to strike horror into the hardest of hearts.