Where do babies on television come from?
How young can a TV baby be? How do you stop a crying newborn on set? And why would you want your tot on screen? Thomas Ling investigates babies in our favourite shows...
When a Mummy and Daddy character on TV love each other very much, they might have a special off-screen hug. And, as if by magic, a tiny new baby actor may appear on the set of the show’s next series.
But where exactly did they come from? Strangely, not the same place as the parents. While most adult actors turn up to auditions, take direction and are (mostly) toilet trained, TV babies are a very different type of performer and need a very specialised route to our screens. And from the last-minute hirings, scrupulous filming rules, baby licensing laws and jelly impersonators, it’s a truly bizarre one.
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This world of pre-school performers is that of JAM2000, the agency that’s provided newborns for the likes of Call the Midwife, The Crown, Sherlock, Doctor Foster, Goodbye Christopher Robin, The Durrells, Skyfall, Tracey Breaks the News, Holby City, Grantchester and many many more. Basically, see a baby on TV and it's likely they’re the agency that arranged it all.
But how do they source these children? How old does a newborn need to be before they’re allowed on camera? Why do parents want to put them on screen in the first place? And, most importantly, how on earth do you stop a baby crying on set?
We put these questions to Judy McPhee, the director of JAM2000 (and the former comedy partner to ‘80s presenter Gary Wilmot), to find out everything about babies on the box.
How old does a baby need to be before they can be on TV?
Good news for all newborns reading: there’s no minimum age required to get a TV role. Although children in many US states (including California) need to be at least 15 days old to gain a work permit, a baby just only hours old can get a child performance license in the UK.
As long as the paperwork is filled out – including a full medical declaration from the parents affirming their child is fit and healthy – and the local council has checked it through, a baby could theoretically be whizzed straight from hospital to their first screen appearance.
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“The youngest baby we've ever had working with us is four days old, but I’ve heard of some productions that have used a two-day-old," says McPhee. “As long as they’re discharged and fit, healthy and protected, they can perform.”
Often, though, productions look for babies that haven’t even been born yet. Well, babies born before well before their due date. “If a show wants a birthing scene, they always want babies as small as they possibly can. Because on TV you can have an eight-pound baby that looks ten pounds,” explains McPhee.
“What a show will say is 'we're looking for newborns or twins'. Because twins are more likely to be premature [on average by three weeks, with triplets seven weeks early].”
“Even though they may be two months old, they might only be four to six pounds in weight”. And that’s the perfect size for a birthing scene – even if a baby appears a few pounds heavier on screen, they’ll still look like your average 6-9lbs newborn.
But there’s another reason twins are so sought after: they double the period a show can have a baby in front of camera. That's incredibly useful considering the short time one child is permitted on set (a maximum of five hours a day, with a two-hour limit on performing that's broken down further into slots of 30 minutes).
So, to extend filming times with a child, shows often employ a twin tag-teaming strategy where multiple babies portray the same character, with the tots swapped between shots.
And this will happen even if the babies aren’t the same sex. “Often girls play boys and boys play girls,” says McPhee. “Sometimes if they can’t get twins, they’ll use a lookalike and get both of them to wear a hat.”
The reverse can also be true, with the same baby playing different characters. For instance, Aidan Barton, son of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith editor Roger Barton, played both Luke and Leia during the movie without the audience noticing anything out of place.
However, using the same baby is a rarity in movies, particularly those that shoot across different countries. Because, quite understandably, most productions and parents aren’t keen to jet premature babies around the world. The workaround? Filmmakers task agencies like JAM2000 to find a doppelganger for their original baby who can be filmed on the foreign set. And, as McPhee knows too well, that’s not always an easy job.
“There was one US production where we needed to find a double for a small baby boy. I was sent a photo and I thought ‘Christ, he's got a lot of hair! He's almost got a side-parting!'” she recalls.
In fact, this baby had more hair than any boys McPhee could find in the UK. So, she improvised: “I found a girl who was nine months who was quite small. And, fortunately, the mum was happy to have the little girl's haircut!”
How TV shows deal with crying babies
Not surprisingly, casting directors don’t ask newborns to audition. But nor do they take into consideration how prone a child is to crying. Because, as any new parent will tell you, babies are unpredictable.
“I would never promise a client a quiet baby,” says McPhee. “You can have a kid that you think is really good, but then one day they're really bad. We've had a baby that's so placid and we thought 'they're ideal for another part' and she cried the whole time.”
And it’s no easier the other way round, when a show has a well-behaved baby they need to cry on camera. Production can’t deliberately scare them – the child’s dedicated on-set chaperone will ensure they aren't put in deliberate distress – but there are ways around it. “Maybe they'll wait until feeding time or when they’ve pooed their nappy,” says McPhee.
But even then, she says, there’s no guarantee a child will stick to the script: “Until they're four-years-old, it's all a gamble!”
Yet, it’s a gamble productions take – even it means they’re left with a baby who screams for their five hours on set. “It is what it is, I tell them,” says McPhee. “Babies are babies and production can't tell babies to stop crying. Sometimes they'll say 'oh, we won't have a baby in that scene’ or ‘we'll use a jelly baby’.”
That’s right, a jelly baby. But one a lot more lifelike than the Bassett's variety: these silicone-based stand-ins are way beyond a simple toy model, weighing the same as a real baby and complete with a hand-coloured finish, custom-made eyes and individually-stitched hairs.
All that combined makes for a model lifelike enough to fools the actors, never mind viewers. For example, Call the Midwife’s Emerald Fennell (Nurse Patsy) told Radio Times last year: “[The models] take a bit of getting used to because they look so real; you have that moment when you first see them and think it’s a real baby. You end up holding them like a real baby.”
Of course, as anyone who witnessed the baby in American Sniper will tell you (see below), these fake tots aren’t completely undetectable on screen. They might look lifelike, but they’re not able to move like a real baby. So, for the most part, they’re kept as covered as possible: “If you see a shot with a blanket around a baby from behind, that’ll be a jelly one,” says McPhee.
However, special effects companies are now developing animatronic infants, detailed model robots whose every move can be controlled remotely. And shows like Call the Midwife are already using them. For instance, remember baby Susan, the child born with limb defects? That was 100% a robot baby.
But despite advancements in these robotics, McPhee says she hasn’t seen a slow-down in business. And the reason why becomes clear quickly. While it makes sense to hire out a jelly baby that can cost £400 a week (with real babies costing a bit extra – more on that below), an animatronic baby can cost £2,000 per day. That doesn’t even include the crew needed to control it.
So, unless the cost of animatronics reduces – or a generation of particularly wail-prone babies make them a necessity – a legion of robot newborns won’t be taking over our sets any time soon.
Why do parents want to put their newborn on camera?
At first, it makes little sense. Why would you cart your baby from hospital to a busy film set? And why do it especially if you gave birth to the sort of premature baby TV shows use? Wouldn’t becoming a parent of a particularly fragile child make you more protective?
The immediate answer some might get to is it's all about money. But it’s not necessarily the right one. Because, as some parents say, they signed their baby up to a TV agency precisely because of their difficult experiences of childbirth.
Take Jade Cooper, mother to six-month-old Raye, a baby girl who’s now featured in four productions. Although born eight weeks before her due date, Raye first appeared on camera five weeks later, weighing just four pounds.
“She was just keen to get in this world – very keen,” says Jade. “My water went and they tried to put her off until I was 36 weeks. But that didn’t happen. Three days later I was told that I was 8cm dilated and going into labour.
"I pushed for a while, but had to have an emergency C-section. And then Raye was then taken away from me and I was left alone, numb from the spinal anaesthetic.”
Raye was moved to an intensive care unit, where she was unable to breathe without help. But she fought through and, after three days, was able to inhale by herself.
Raye remained in intensive care for three weeks as Jade, recovering from another operation after complications with her C-section, had to watch on. “I don't know why I was there every day solid. I couldn't do anything,” she remembers. “But I wanted to be there by Raye's side”.
Then, on Christmas Day, it all changed: doctors gave Raye the all clear. She was coming home. But not before Jade was taken aside by an intensive care nurse. “Whatever Raye or you do in your lives, you've got to remember she's come into this world,” she pleaded. “You're lucky. Cherish life.’”
“I think that's what I do with Raye,” reflects Jade. “I think you need to grab opportunities because life is short, isn't it? What I saw in the NCU [neonatal care unit] with really poorly babies – I'm talking babies that are like 24 weeks old with no skin, with mums there thinking 'is my baby going to live?' … my experience has been nothing compared to others.”
“When you have a premature baby, you go on a massive journey. You take every moment as it comes because you treasure what you've got. Everything I've done with Raye – like the TV stuff – I think I’ve got an experience with her and me together.
“People say 'oh, you're mad doing it!' But after everything that happened I think if there are exciting opportunities there for her, I think we should grab them!”
What actually happens when the baby is on set?
They might be new to the business, but baby actors are often the most pampered on-screen talent. Not only will a hired car drive the child and parent to set, but the two will be escorted throughout the day by a licensed and trained chaperone (or two chaperones if there are twins, three for triplets).
“The chaperones make sure shows adhere to all licensing laws, that the baby and parent have everything they need and they’re well-provided for,” explains McPhee. “If the baby's crying, they check with mother. If they’re hungry, they’re there to say it’s a mother's right to feed the child. Basically, they want to make sure baby and mum are happy.”
And although shoots are long and with delays, the parent and child are usually whisked straight to set, the producers anxious not to waste any of their rationed baby time. “They checked what she was wearing and then she was on!” explains Jade.
It gets better. In between scenes, the parents are left with the actors, and, as Jade found out, they're very eager to carry on holding the baby between takes.
She’s not allowed to name talent while shows are still in production, but Jade said she was made to feel welcome by “some really big stars” at every set. “I didn’t realise famous people would speak to normal people!” she laughs. “Everyone wanted to know Raye’s name and how old she was. They were so lovely!”
Lesson learned: if you want to befriend the stars of TV, placing a cute newborn in their arms certainly won’t hurt.
Who gets paid for the baby’s work?
Strangely, there’s no law stating the money has to be set aside for the child. Although parents in the US are required to safeguard a portion of these earnings due to the Coogan act – named after Jackie Coogan, the child actor who earned millions performing next to Charlie Chaplin only to later find his parents had spent everything – UK parents are free to do as they wish.
But it’s good to hear that mums like Jade still save the money for Raye regardless. “It's not my money,” she says. “All Raye’s money will go into a little savings account. Sometimes shows have paid me also, but I put that into Raye’s savings too.”
But how much do they actually earn? Not as much as you’d think. Even though a baby can be the at the foreground of a scene and entire storylines, they’ll only be hired as a background actor. No matter how much gurgling and babbling they improvise, a newborn can only ever claim a non-speaking role.
And that means the money isn’t amazing. True, expenses are often paid for and wages can vary widely between productions, but you still might only be looking at a few hundred pounds from a show at most.
“We're not an agency that will make people tons of money, to be honest," says McPhee. "I'm not here to make your child a star because I couldn't think of anything worse! It’s just about that experience.”
How do I get my baby on TV?
Currently, JAM2000 hires 150 to 200 babies a year (three or four a week), with 500 babies currently on its books. But, fortunately for any unemployed newborns, they’re always in need of more. “We never have enough!” laughs McPhee. “If I walk past somebody who’s pregnant, I give them my card!”
As she explains, the agency always needs a large bank of babies on standby to manage the ever-hectic cycle of TV shows. “Most productions give us 10 working days. But schedules change. We’ll get a new day. And then they'll cut the scene. And do another one elsewhere. That is just the way of the business.”
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“I worked with one ITV production where they asked ‘can we have a newborn baby and a six-month-old this afternoon?’. And I did it!”
Parents are normally given a bit longer – Raye and Jade, for instance, were only given three days warning. But, at short notice or not, TV shows are always looking for babies.
And if you’re interested in seeing your child on screen? No matter their age, all you need to is email JAM2000 (info@JAM2000.co.uk) with a photo of your baby. And you never know, in a few days’ time they could be enjoying a scene with one of TV’s finest. Presuming they can out-act a silicone model, anyway.
This article was originally published in August 2018