I get the same two calls pretty much everyday. The first starts “Hello this is pushy mum. Little Jacob sounds like an 8 year old Sean Bean and just has to do voiceovers”. The second is less easily dismissed and raises some important questions about how our industry employs children under 16. “Hello this is a junior producer at a large media company. We need an eight year old voice to be in our Soho studio later today! What? – they can’t do 2pm! Why? Oh right they’re in school. Do they need a license? And sorry but we haven’t got the same budget we pay our adult talent.”

It surprises me how often production people make poor decisions when organising work with children. When it comes to voiceovers, children’s needs are routinely overlooked and there are some big questions that need answering. What’s best for children when they are doing the occasional voice over? Whose interests are served by the child licensing laws? Does the current system play into the hands of clients that expect too much from children? It’s time we asked whether kids should ever be missing school for voice overs or, indeed, travelling to a studio after a long school day. Is there a better alternative?

All of us, parents, agents, production people and end clients accept the need for a workable system that protects the welfare of children. The company paying for the voice over services is legally responsible for ensuring the correct paperwork. It’s the law and employing a minor for commercial gain without a valid license can lead to prosecution. Whilst employment law details the actual welfare issues, there is no national authority that oversees the procedure for issuing child performance licenses. This is the reponsibility of the child employment officer at the local authority where the child lives. Justine Harris, professional voice and mother of two talented young voices, Elodie and Hardie explains how this impacts on children’s welfare: “currently there is a postcode lottery: some authorities are meticulous. They will require a different license be issued for each separate occasion a child is recording and can take up to 21 days to issue the license. The employment officer may check each script to ensure it is age appropriate. Equally, however, there are plenty of authorities that are happy to issue open licenses which, after a one time production of a doctor’s note and birth certificate, pretty much allow a child to do any work outside school hours without further scrutiny from the local authority.”

This can lead to local authorities unwittingly allowing clients to put too much pressure on children in the studio. Once an open license is issued there is less control of what type of work and how much work a child might be required to voice. For example if a nine year old has five difficult scripts to read after school there could easily be a conflict of interest. The client is paying for studio and has a deadline to meet so may put pressure on the child to finish the job in the time available. The parent or chaperone may object but often it’s not easy to insist on a break or even end the session early when it’s clear a child is tiring. In this scenario the current licensing system may well be failing to protect the child.

The license itself is a standard document which traditionally was issued for theatre and television acting, activities which often require children being taken out of school. Many councils have little or no knowledge of the voiceover business and can struggle to respond to requests to license the urgent single hour voiceover sessions that dominate our industry. At Voiceover Kids we get regular requests for children to miss school so they can travel up to London to record commercials in Soho studios. Children under eight are not permitted to work after 4.30pm so have to work earlier in the day which ironically forces them to miss school (with their head teacher’s written permission). Last month I was asked by a top casting agency for five under eights to miss school and attend an unpaid audition the following day. They were under the impression that because the audition was unpaid that no license would be necessary. The casting notes even stipulated that only children who could be licensed in 24 hours need attend the audition. Of course we turned the job down. Why should young children be made to miss school for a short voice over session let alone an unpaid audition where the production team was so woefully unprepared? Call me cynical but the choice of recording studio is always about how near it is to the creative team’s Soho offices than because of any consideration of ease of access and travelling time for the child voice over talent.

Getting a licensed but quite possibly unprepared child and their stressed parent to quit school (and work) early to haul themselves across rush hour London sums up everything that is wrong with the current model and yet it’s the industry norm. It’s hardly surprising that with client pressure to get the child into studio as quickly as possible, London voice over agencies and production companies quietly favour children whose local authorities issue licenses quickly or better still issue open licenses. Are production companies and voice over agencies effectively restricting work only to children on open licenses who can drop everything and be available at short notice? I’ve seen it too often; an excellent applicant is selected for a high profile gig then quietly dropped once the client realises that licensing is going to delay their schedule. They change their mind and employ a child talent who can be in studio 24 or 48 hours later. The right child for the job has lost the gig because they don’t live in the right postcode.

There are a million reasons why home studios have rocketed in popularity and transformed our industry. Children have benefitted with more recordings at home meaning that they and their friends can safely work after school, fitting a voice over around home activities and school clubs. With this now very real alternative the question arises – should the councils be in a position where a short voice over session can only proceed with their permission? Should an eight year be forced to miss school because the law prohibits them from working after 4.30 pm when it’s easy for them to work at home after they’ve got in from school and had some tea? For me the answer is obvious. I routinely send this email in response to client requests. “We are going to pass as it is unreasonable to expect children to travel into Soho for this project at short notice. The best way to meet your brief is to consider directing the talent in their home studio. This minimises disruption to the child’s school day and gives them time to prepare your script with mum or dad before they record in a familiar and safe environment. You will be assured of their best performance and an excellent cost-effective result. Susie Sefton, whose son Jake loves to do the occasional voice over as a hobby suggests “it’s ridiculous to drag kids to Soho to record. Apart from large cast animations or perhaps when a client wants to meet a child at the beginning of a long term project, any voice over can be recorded at home without disrupting the child’s routine. These days easy access to Source Connect and Skype mean that almost any session can be directed remotely.”

There’s a great selection of young talent across the UK and further afield who are picking up the subtleties and skills of voice over work with their parents at home. Many parents open up their studio to their children’s friends who get the opportunity to try voice over, often for the first time (as many parents are put off by the red tape and fuss of obtaining the doctor’s certificate). This means more kids get to experience and have fun with voice overs!

So it’s time for a wider debate about licensing and the law. We should allow the parents to take responsibility for the work their children do – at home or in school or community studios set up by family and friends. Local authorities should issue a set of guidelines for parents and local studios to follow. It’s a sad fact that it only takes one stressful recording session to end a child’s voiceover career because no child wants to repeat a stressful experience. Kids’ voice overs should, with few exceptions, be recorded at home after school in a spirit of fun and familiarity because a happy kid who enjoys voice overs today is the voice over adult of tomorrow.

James Bonallack May 2017