Turning 30 this year is Dame Jacqueline Wilson’s character of Tracy Beaker – the children’s literary heroine who thrilled young readers with her rebellious attitude and inventive vocabulary, before captivating huge audiences in CBBC’s BAFTA-nominated series The Story of Tracy Beaker – a show that almost never came to be.
“Year after year went by and nobody thought it was really going to go anywhere,” author Jacqueline Wilson tells me over the phone. “And then suddenly, [former CBBC commissioner executive Sue Nott] got the green light to go ahead with it. It was astonishing that she was so determined to hang on to it – anybody else would have lost faith.”
The Bath-born author, who’s published over 100 books since her first novel in 1969, wrote The Story of Tracy Beaker in 1991 and went on to pen another eight books in the franchise, with one of her latest – 2018’s My Mum Tracy Beaker – now adapted for CBBC and available to stream on BBC iPlayer.
“It really, really startles me that the character, the book and certainly the wonderful many television series to do with Tracy have all been so popular because until I wrote the story of Tracy Beaker, I’d had a few books published and occasionally they’d done reasonably well, but most people had never even heard of me,” Wilson says.
The award-winning author was inspired to write The Story of Tracy Beaker, which follows troubled 10-year-old Tracy as she grows up in a children’s care home, after seeing a campaign for more foster parents in the local paper. “I just looked at these heartwarming but really upsetting photos of all these kids smiling bravely or occasionally crossing their eyes and pulling a face and I thought, ‘God, what must it be like to be one of these children?’ And almost immediately, I thought, ‘OK, there’s my book.'”
While Wilson was pleased with the book, she didn’t expect anything else to come of it – but when CBBC’s Sue Nott reached out after reading the book and suggested adapting it for TV, “it took off”.
“It was her idea to have the little animation sequences as part of the actual production and it all just worked like a dream,” she says. “It was just so wonderful and I mean, Tracy Beaker has actually really been a part of my life ever since.”
On the appeal of Tracy with children, Wilson says that she’s her go-to character to talk about because they understand her. “Kids liked her because she’s naughty and she’s funny, and yet they get the fact that she’s also unhappy and just desperately wants to be in a home where her mum is going to look after her.”
When she first stepped onto set and saw the 12-year-old Dani Harmer filming scenes for The Story of Tracy Beaker, the author knew she was right for the role. “I don’t know how Dani would feel about it if I say this, but she was born to play Tracy, she really was. She was just a perfect little actress. And the whole thing just ran and ran.”
Over the next three years, Beaker would become a CBBC icon, inducing fits of laughter in children with just two words: “Bog off!” When The Story of Tracy Beaker came to an end in 2005, the foster child came back to CBBC in Tracy Beaker Returns (2010-2012) and made a brief cameo in Tracy Beaker spin-off The Dumping Ground in 2018.
How did Beaker’s infamous catchphrase come about? Wilson isn’t entirely sure. “I can’t remember if it’s actually in the book – I will have to find an old copy and go through it – or whether it was a television device, because it sounds funny and rude.But it’s not actually a swear word. I mean, it’s unpleasant, but it’s not shocking.
“I thought it was a very original expression and it’s so long ago now. I have no idea whether it was my work or one of the script writers. Perhaps somebody will tell me some day. But it’s certainly been an expression that has remained in sort of ordinary use. it’s quite good fun – I don’t know what the parents thought about it though,” she laughs.
As for how she came up with the idea of visiting a grown-up Tracy, Wilson says she hadn’t really thought about it until she started chatting with friends one day a few years ago. “I was having a laugh with a friend, who was teasing me about some of my fictional characters and I said, ‘Well, I wonder what Tracy Beaker would be like now? Because she’d be in her 30s. Would she be a mum? And what would she be like?’
“And I thought almost straightaway, she would be a wonderful mum. Because, you know, she’s still a feisty character and she finds it difficult to deal with authority. Because she didn’t have much mothering before she got fostered, she would be very determined to be the best mother ever to her own daughter and I wanted to write that, not only because I felt it was right for the character, but also for anybody who’s had a less than perfect childhood to show that that old myth that you just carry on doing the same sort of things that your parents might have done is not necessarily true at all.
“You can change yourself and be the sort of person that you wanted in your life when you were young. I thought right, ‘I’ve got to write this book’, And it was just such a wonderful surprise that almost straightaway CBBC showed such interest in the whole idea.”
When it came to deciding how Tracy would have grown over the last 10 years and what she’d be up to now, Wilson said she knew “almost straightaway” how she wanted her to be. “Some care leavers that have taken Tracy to their heart would have liked me to have Tracy be an enormous success and to be an inspiration for anybody who’s been through the care system and I took the point and I know perfectly well there are some very famous people who have absolutely made it but I thought with Tracy, she’s a bright girl but she didn’t settle down at school.
“I thought it wouldn’t be ultra-realistic to suddenly make everything happen for her absolutely perfectly. It rather appealed to me that what she was really most determined about was being a good mum for her daughter. Never mind her dreams about being a writer or whatever.
“I wanted to be realistic and to show that, my goodness, it’s wonderful if you have a brilliant career and you become famous, but it’s also just as wonderful, if not more, if you have your own family and just become a successful human being.
Wilson added: “As a character, she’s so strong that I can’t really manipulate her. She seems to develop by herself.”
For Tracy’s daughter Jess, played in the three-part series by Emma Davies, Wilson says that she couldn’t write her to be as determined, noisy and bossy as Tracy as she couldn’t see how they’d get along. “They’d be forever arguing. I wanted Jess to be a quieter girl. But, an inwardly more secure girl, because she’s had the sort of childhood anyone would wish for with sort of love and attention and care the whole time. So in some ways, she, she is almost the sort of adult figure in their relationship.”
The 10-year-old still has Beaker elements however, becoming frustrated with Tracy when she begins to focus on romance in her life. “I rather thought although Jess isn’t naturally a very difficult girl, she would object strongly because, you know, she’s so used to having her mother’s almost undivided attention. It’s such a joy to see how young Emma portrays her and the way that Dani and Emma are so good together, they really do seem like a family.”
Did Wilson have much of a say when it came to casting? “No, I never ever get to have any say in casting! And it’s so funny because so many children write to me with photos and they might go to a Saturday stage school or something and they say please, please, please can they be in an adaptation of my books. How I wish I had that power!
“Out of interest, I would just love to watch an audition and see all these children. I did once say, ‘You know, I promise I would stay right in the corner, I wouldn’t say a word’ but no, it’s not happened.”
As for members of the original cast, Wilson says she was delighted when she found out some of the stars of The Story of Tracy Beaker would return for the new series. “I did wonder if we could get some of the original cast back because it’s such fun seeing how people have changed over the years and so it’s a joy that way too.”
“Although it’s actually a children’s series, I also did hope that 20-somethings who’ve grown up with Tracy might actually feel, ‘Wow – this is a lovely trip down memory lane’, particularly nowadays when life is a bit bleak and a bit same-y. It’s like suddenly meeting a friend who you haven’t seen since your own school days – it’s fun to find out what they’re doing. So I hope some adult viewers tune in too.”
Should My Mum Tracy Beaker have aired on BBC One instead? “Well there has been talk about this,” Wilson hints. “I’m crossing my fingers and hoping this might happen.”
Even if the new series does find a home on just CBBC and BBC iPlayer, people of all ages are bound to tune in considering how many people resonated with Tracy when she came into existence back in the 90’s. “There are quite a few people that have written [to Wilson], occasionally it’s somebody who’s been in the care system themselves and said what it meant to them, or it’s been somebody who for one reason or another, they’ve had many homes or their parents have split up and they’d had to go from home to home.
“I think a lot of people identify with the whole idea of not really fitting in, not having a permanent home and have taken Tracy to their hearts. And I find it so touching that I make something up, and it makes people feel that they’re not alone or that somehow or another, you can come through things and life can change for you.”
My Mum Tracy Beaker is available to stream on BBC iPlayer and airs from CBBC from Friday 12th February. Take a look at what else is on with our TV guide. If you’re after more Tracy Beaker content, check out our interview with the original Story of Tracy Beaker cast on their favourite moments from the show.