Dani Harmer on 20 years of Tracy Beaker, growing up in the spotlight and reprising the character for her upcoming series
Dani Harmer chats to Lauren Morris for The Big RT Interview ahead of her upcoming series My Mum Tracy Beaker.
For many growing up in the early noughties, The Story of Tracy Beaker was an after-school TV staple, with the rebellious, cheeky yet complex tween dropping by households across the UK from 4.25pm until 4.35pm twice a week.
Now 20 years on, the series continues to be one of CBBC's most iconic exports. Dumping Ground characters live on as the subjects of ever-circulating memes ("Who stole my Maroon 5 CD?"), while the instantly recognisable theme song was sampled in 2019 by Stormzy for his latest album.
As for Tracy, her infamous catchphrase 'Bog Off' is now a mainstream insult used by Gen Z-ers and Millennials everywhere – so much so that Dani Harmer, who's been the face of Beaker since 2002, is still "constantly" on the receiving end of it.
"I love the fact that people think it will be the first time that I've ever heard it," she says over the phone. "They're like, 'Ooh bog off!' and I'm like, 'Wow, not heard that one before!'"
Later this month, Harmer is returning to our screens as the Jacqueline Wilson character in a brand new series – My Mum, Tracy Beaker. Now in her 30's with a 10-year-old daughter Jess (played by newcomer Emma Maggie Davies), the three-parter follows Tracy as she begins a relationship with her childhood friend-turned-professional-footballer Sean – however the trio soon find themselves stumbling into various sticky situations.
Jumping back into Tracy's shoes after a decade away from the character was "crazy" for Harmer, who, like us, was curious to see how the impetuous teen turned out. "I just think I was like everyone else – I was just a bit of fan. I just really wanted to know what Tracy was up to, where she was going, what was happening with her."
Adapted from Jacqueline Wilson's 2018 book of the same name, the project took a while to get off the ground initially. "It's been in the pipeline for a really long time and it was just kind of finding the right time to bring it out and finding the right kid to play Jess. And we found Emma [Maggie Davies], who is just the most wonderful actress. She's so so good. I can't wait for everyone to see her – she's got such a bright future ahead of her."
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It's difficult to imagine Tracy, who most people still picture as an aloof, headstrong 13-year-old in foster care, with a daughter – but Harmer says that when she read the script, she knew Wilson had written her authentically.
"As soon as I read it I was like, 'This is exactly how Tracy would be as a mum'," she says. "Her daughter is amazing. They're kind of complete opposites to be honest with you. Obviously, Tracy kind of just speaks before she thinks – she's very emotional, she's very feisty. Whereas Jess is a bit more reserved. She's a bit more chilled, she is really intelligent.
"But those two together, it's just a match made in heaven. They're not only mother and daughter, they're friends as well and I think that comes across in the show."
Now 31 with a young daughter of her own, Harmer has grown up alongside Tracy over the last two decades – although the Bracknell-born actress couldn't seem more different to her abrasive counterpart over the phone. Friendly, optimistic and chatty, Harmer is a ray of sunshine, even when talking about her "different" childhood in the spotlight.
"Most people, when they're teenagers, for instance, you kind of can shy away from the camera. You don't have to show everyone your braces and your acne and the frizzy hair. And mine is just there on iPlayer for everyone to see.
"It's been such a lovely experience growing up on camera and especially playing Tracy – there's never a dull moment."
Having secured her first role at the age of six, Harmer had already been in show business for half a decade when she got her big break playing Tracy Beaker at the age of 12.
"At the time, I didn't realise how big it was going to be. I mean, nothing could have prepared me for how big it was going to be. If someone had told me, 'When you're 32, you're still going to be sat talking about it, I would have been like 'ugh whatever.'"
Harmer isn't the only one still talking about Tracy Beaker, with viewers of all ages often telling her how significant the character was to them growing up. "Everyone's always like, 'Oh my God you're my childhood!' I'm like 'OK, that makes me feel really old by the way guys!'
"It's just so nice, I get really excited when I see things from my childhood as well so that power of nostalgia is just huge," she adds. "It does make me laugh when I get teenagers coming up to me because they'll be like 15 years old, and they'll be like 'Oh my God, I used watch you when I was a kid,' and I'm like, 'You're still a child, but thank you very much. You weren't born when we started it!'"
Revisiting Tracy all these years later also meant that Harmer was able to reunite with some of her co-stars from The Story of Tracy Beaker days, with Lisa Coleman, who played Tracy's foster mum Cam, and Bridgerton's Ruth Gemmell, who was Tracy's birth mother Carly, appearing in the upcoming series.
"It was so nice to see everyone – I just wish we hadn't been in the middle of a pandemic because we couldn't hug anyone so it was really hard. You kind of had to fight all your natural instincts, especially with Lisa who played Cam. I just wanted to give her the biggest squeeze I possible could. It literally felt like we hadn't worked with each other for a day, let alone 10 years."
Harmer also caught up on set with Montanna Thompson, who played Tracy's nemesis Justine Littlewood, with the pair chatting about their real-life children.
"She's a mum now herself and so we were kind of swapping loads of stories about what we've been up to do with our kids and stuff. It was really, really nice."
Has Harmer been able to introduce her daughter, Avarie-Belle, to Tracy yet? "Not yet, she's only four. So unless I was actually Princess Elsa or Anna, I don't think she would care anyway."
As for her on-screen daughter, Emma Maggie Davies, Harmer says that the rising star's first experience of fame is bound to be "completely different" to her's in the early 2000s. "I thank my lucky stars every single day that when I was younger, there was no social media, because I don't know how I would have coped.
"I've kind of warned Emma and just been like, 'Look, just brace yourself because there are some absolutely morons out there. Do not listen to a word they say online because you are a superstar'.
"I can't really help her on that aspect because I was so lucky – there was no Twitter, there was no Instagram, you had to actually physically meet someone in order to tell them your opinion and no one ever says it to your face."
Harmer's first experience with the darker side of social media came about when she signed up for Strictly Come Dancing in 2012. "I got so many messages, people telling me that I'm fat, that I'm overweight and I was like a size six at the time, so I was like, 'Holy moly, if I'm fat, God knows what other people must be thinking if they're bigger than me', that must be just horrible."
"I can think of things really logically and be like, obviously, I'm not fat, that's ridiculous. This person, obviously, is just bored, or has something wrong with their life that they feel like this is the only way they can get some validation and I actually feel sorry for them. So I can kind of put it logically, I guess. But yeah, for kids it must be so hard."
"I think we're a bit more open about our mental health states now. People are being a bit more honest on their social media pages and using them a bit more responsibly. So hopefully we're coming out the other side of it now."
Aside from some negative comments online, Strictly Come Dancing was a great experience for Harmer, who made it to the finals with Italian professional Vincent Simone. "I didn't really know what I was signing up for – yes I knew what Strictly was, but I didn't realise how many hours you have to put into it and we were training a lot."
Although it's been almost 10 years since she competed on the show, she still stays in touch with Simone, with the pair living just 20 minutes away from one another. "I try and keep in contact as much as I can but he's very, very busy."
Harmer admits that she caught bits of the BBC show's recent series in-between putting her daughter to bed, but does get "really jealous" whenever she watches. "As soon as I hear the music, I kind of want to be up there dancing again and get a bit jealous watching so thank goodness Vincent's not still in it otherwise I feel like I would have been like a proper bunny boiler about it."
As for the future of Tracy, Harmer says she'd love to continue playing her in years to come. "I think it's such a gift for an actor to be able to play a role for a long period of time because you get to grow up with them."
Could we see My Grandma, Tracy Beaker on our screens at some point? "Oh absolutely! She'd be a great grandma as well – she'd be like one of those crazy ladies with loads of cats I think, talking to herself down the high street."
My Mum, Tracy Beaker airs on CBBC and iPlayer on Friday 12th February. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.