Anyone who’s ever watched US TV that features teenagers and young people will have noted that fairly frequently, adult actors have been cast in roles that they’re clearly too old for. Think of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: set in a High School for its first three seasons, it featured Charisma Carpenter as one of its pupils – at the time of the first season, Carpenter was 27 years old, despite playing a 16-year-old. Smallville – which got the subtitle of Superman: The Early Years over here – featured Tom Welling as the 16-year-old Clark Kent, when at the time he was 24. Add to that list shows like Gossip Girl, Modern Family and Pretty Little Liars, and you can see a pretty concerted strategy to not employ young people to play young people.
The general aim, of course, has been to get people with acting talent and the emotional maturity required for roles, as well as to make them allowably fanciable (in certain cases). Plus there’s those tricky child labour laws, education and so on to deal with.
But famed playwright Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective, Brimstone and Treacle) went to a different extreme, using the technique in an entirely different way in a number of plays for entirely different reasons. Both Stand Up Nigel Barton and his final work, Cold Lazarus, saw Potter casting very much grown adults in the roles of children to emphasise aspects of childishness in adults, to highlight the differences, and to achieve emotional resonances and performances that might not be achieved with child actors.
Perhaps his best use of the device was in Blue Remembered Hills, a Play For Today that aired in 1979. The play gets its name from poem XL of AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, ‘The Land of Lost Content’, which is read by Potter himself during the play:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
It stars Michael Elphick (Boon, Private Schulz), Robin Ellis (Poldark), Helen Mirren (do I have to remind you? Prime Suspect, at the very least), Colin Welland (Z-Cars), Janine Duvitski (Diane), Colin Jeavons (Inspector Lestrade in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) and John Bird (Bremner, Bird and Fortune) as the seven-year-olds in question. Probably the closest point of comparison is Lord of the Flies, with a group of normal children playing in the Forest of Dean one summer afternoon in 1943 but victimisation, stereotyping and brutality setting in over time, with tragic results.
Since airing on TV, the screenplay has been adapted for the theatre and is now a standard text at GCSE Drama. Enjoy, and remember if you like it, buy it on DVD to support those nice people who made it in the first place.