CORONATION Street’s producers believed that new cast member Katie Redford was 19, so what’s the problem, asks Fiona McCade
See if you can spot the two plot clues in the title of the 1970 film The Railway Children. Well done everybody who deduced that there’s a railway and there are children. At least, there are some children, but perhaps not as many as most people think.
When actress Sally Thomsett appeared as 11-year-old Phyllis, she was already 20 and almost three years older than Jenny Agutter, who played her elder sister. The production company was careful not to let her be seen out with her boyfriend, smoking or drinking, until the film was safely enshrined in the public’s consciousness, but there are no reports of cinemas being picketed by disillusioned moviegoers, complaining that they’d been fooled by a grown-up masquerading as a little girl.
The producers of Coronation Street are a much more sensitive bunch. Last week they announced that 19-year-old actress Katie Redford was joining the cast, playing the character of 14-year-old Bethany Platt. This week, after it was pointed out (by some particularly sanctimonious trawlers of the internet) that Redford is in fact 26 years old, the same producers immediately sacked her. Like many other people, I am left wondering why.
It is the job of an actor to persuade their audience that they are the person they are portraying. It seems to me that Katie Redford successfully achieved this, not just once but twice. First, she made the Corrie producers believe that she was seven years younger than she actually is. Then she convinced them that she could play a child of 14. Having met her in person and watched her audition, they decided that she was the best actor for the job, and hired her. To then fire her, simply because they discovered that she has a different birthday from the one they supposed she had, seems crazy to me.
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Redford’s agents have apologised and taken responsibility for the situation, admitting that they told Katie to pretend to be 19, because they (rightly, as it turned out) feared that despite being perfect for the part, she would not even get an audition if she was totally honest about her age. Probably, and not unreasonably, they hoped that if Redford proved herself good enough to get the role, any subterfuge involved in getting her to the producers’ notice would be forgiven. They assumed that everybody would agree that the most important thing was getting the right actor for the part. How wrong they were.
It is a fact of showbusiness life that dates of birth are always flexible and, as far as most CVs are concerned, usually replaced by one’s “playing age”. Sandra Bullock summed it up when she said: “I always said I would never lie, but one time when I didn’t, it worked against me. So I figure you just keep them guessing.” I know the feeling.
Once upon a time, when I was an actress, I got a telephone call from a theatre company. They loved my CV and they very much wanted to see me for a part in a play. We arranged the audition and everything was looking good until, just as I thought the conversation was over, the casting director asked: “By the way, how old are you?” Like a fool – like Sandra Bullock – I replied, truthfully: “30”. “Oh,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “we’re actually looking for someone under 30.” “But it was only my birthday last week,” I said, again truthfully. “Why don’t I just come along and you can see me face-to-face, and then you can decide?” But it was pointless; all the interest had gone out of the voice, “Er… no… you see, we’re really only seeing under-30s.” So they never gave me a chance. They probably went with someone whose birthday was the week after mine. Sandra was right; I should have kept them guessing.
But this attitude is far from being unique to the performance industries. How many of us, when applying for any kind of job, have been asked: “How old are you?” And how many of us have immediately told the unvarnished truth, especially if our last cake had more than 40 candles on it?
The CV that Redford’s agents submitted for consideration to ITV clearly stated that her playing age was 16-20 years old. This entirely correct information won her an audition and she succeeded in getting the job. Whether she is 19, or 26, or Rip Van Winkle shouldn’t have affected that outcome one jot. If the authorities at Coronation Street have such delicate sensibilities that they feel they’ve been unfairly tricked, then they really need to wake up and smell the Botox.
Redford’s youthful looks are valuable assets, so why shouldn’t she capitalise on them? Lord knows, we’re forever suffering television shows where schoolchildren are played by actors who are very obviously adults. In the first episode of The Inbetweeners, the lads were thrown out of a pub for being underage, despite the fact that they all looked about 35. And still do.
I really don’t see ITV’s problem. Redford may well be a mere two years younger than the actress who would have played her screen mother, but there is very little likelihood that this would have mattered. Think of Gone With The Wind, in which Barbara O’Neil (aged 29) played the mother of Vivien Leigh (a 26-year-old playing 16) – we believed it, didn’t we? Or my personal favourite: Colin Farrell (born 1976) playing the son of Angelina Jolie (born 1975) in Alexander.
Given that Katie Redford won the role of Bethany Platt through her merits as an actor, and lost it on an irrelevant technicality, I hope she finds another high-profile job very soon.
Perhaps the producers of River City could find something for her. After all, we Scots are used to this sort of thing – one of our national icons is a post-menopausal woman pretending to be a schoolboy.