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The Law Behind the Magic of Harry Potter

It would be wonderful if this post were about all kinds of laws drafted by the Ministry of Magic.  It’s not.  I’m sorry.  While England did at one point have laws regarding witchcraft on the books, those days are long gone.  Instead, in what can only be considered to be the highlight of my social calendar this year, on a recent  Saturday night I was at home watching Creating the World of Harry Potter, a show that describes the making of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books into a blockbuster movie series.  (For atmospheric Harry Potter music to play in the background whilst reading, click here).

During the show, Chris Columbus, director of the first two installments, spoke about some of the constraints he encountered during filming.  He specifically mentioned the difficulty of working with child actors.  Not that they are difficult to work with generally (or perhaps just a touch?), but that the laws in Britain, where the majority of filming occurred, meant that the child actors could only perform for four hours each day.   He said that, combined with the inexperience of the actors, led to the first film having the feel of a documentary as separate cameras were put on each of the young actors, in order to maximize the time that the production crew had.  In some scenes, the footage was then edited to switch back and forth between the actors to allow the use of the best takes for the final release.

So back to the law.  The use of child actors in performances is regulated by the Children and Young Persons Act 1963 and the Children (Performances) Regulations 1968.  The 1963 Act requires that a license must be obtained for a child (in this Act, generally, under the age of sixteen) for any performance that is recorded to be used in a broadcast or a film for public exhibition.  Taking part as a performer in any rehearsal or preparation before the recording of a performance also brings the child under the licensing requirements.

Licenses are obtained from the local authority where the child lives and the production company must apply for the license at least twenty one days before the first performance.  The child’s parents must complete a part of the application, to provide their consent.  Additional documentation required may include a medical certificate, as well as permission from the head teacher of the school to permit the child’s absence.

The law in this area is a little convoluted, and at times contradictory, and a good example of something that would be a good candidate to be re-written in plain English.  For example, the local authority may only grant a license if they are satisfied that:

proper provision has been made to secure [the child's] health and kind treatment and that, having regard to such provision (if any) as has been or will be made therefor, his education will not suffer; but if they are so satisfied, in the case of an application duly made for a licence under this section which they have power to grant, they shall not refuse to grant the licence.

So … the local authority may grant a license if they are satisfied that the child’s education will be satisfactorily taken care of, and that adequate provisions have been made for the child’s health and welfare.  To further protect the child’s welfare, a matron must be appointed to care for the child when the child is not with their parent or teacher.

The requirement to obtain a license does not arise if the child is not reimbursed for the performance, or if money is paid solely to defray any expenses incurred, provided the child has not been part of a performance for more than three days, or the performance was given under arrangements made by a school, or other body approved by the Secretary of State or local authority.

There are further restrictions if the child is below the age of fourteen.  In these cases, a license may only be granted if accompanied by a declaration stating that the role may only be played with a child of the age in question; the role is for dancing in a ballet; or the role is mainly musical in a performance that is also mainly musical, or consisting only of opera or ballet.

When granted, the license must specify any time the child will be absent from school for the purposes of the role in the application.  To ensure the child’s educational needs are met, licenses will not be granted unless the child receives education for three hours each day they would otherwise be in school.  If taught by a private tutor, the local authority must approve both the location at which the schooling will be undertaken, and the materials taught.

Further restrictions on the time that the actors may be on set are provided for in the regulations.  These provide that children over the age of nine years old may only be at the place of performance or rehearsal for four hours, which must be between the hours of seven in the morning to seven at night.   Children over the age of thirteen may be at the place of performance or rehearsal for up to twelve hours if filming is for one day; up to ten hours if the filming is for two days; and up to eight hours if the filming is over three days.

There are restrictions on how many days each year children may be in performances.  Local authorities are prohibited from granting licenses to children between the ages of thirteen and sixteen if they have taken part in other performances for more than seventy nine days in the previous twelve months.  For those under the age of thirteen, the number of days is reduced to thirty nine days.

Any earnings of a child granted a license under this Act may be subject to a condition stipulated in a license requiring them to be “… dealt with in a manner approved by the licensing authority.”   While I have seen nothing in relation to the salaries of the main actors (other than they made a lot of money from the films), there was a dispute over the earnings of some of the extras in the Harry Potter movies.  The headmaster of one of the schools that the children attended determined that they performed their roles as part of “work experience” and therefore any monies owed to the extras was to be paid into a school fund.  Child extras who attended other schools received the money that formed their pay.  As a result of this decision, the local authorities in the area came together to form a policy to apply to any child extras that would be used during filming.

The government has discussed removing much of the red tape that surrounds the use of child actors, although production companies and parents are navigating these complex and often contradictory laws and regulations, as there are reportedly over 45,000 licenses issued per year.

3 Comments

  1. Jennifer Granville
    February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    I am currently co-authoring a textbook entitled ‘The Casting Handbook’ commissioned by Routledge and aimed at early career producers and directors. We are including a chapter on casting children and I have been trying to find a succinct and authoritative description of licensing laws. ‘The Law Behind the Magic of Harry Potter’ is perfect for our needs, and I wanted to know if you would grant permission for us to quote freely from the article?

  2. Clare Feikert-Ahalt
    February 29, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Thank you for reading the blog! I’m glad that you found it useful, and would be thrilled for it to be quoted in your upcoming work, provided it is cited appropriately. If I can provide any further research assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me. Good luck with your book!

  3. David McGillivray
    July 23, 2013 at 7:18 am

    I am writing an article on former child actor William Graham, now aged 82. He appears to have been allowed to travel the UK unchaperoned in stage shows at the age of 14. There appear to have been no restrictions on the number of hours he worked and he received no tuition. This was in 1945. Was the Children and Young Persons’ Act 1963 the first legislation relating to the employment of child performers in the UK? Thank you for your help for which I’ll credit you.

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