When we think of school assemblies, we imagine hard oakwood floors, dull announcements and Christian hymns. Teacher’s telling us to settle down, practicing school plays, and single file lines. Yet, when I personally think back to school assemblies, I remember my Year 6 class of 29 other pupils closing both their fists and eyes in some kind of prayer: praying that I’d win the local Jacqueline Wilson competition of the time.
If you knew me before my adolescent years, you’d know how tight me and Jacqueline Wilson were. Arguably still are, as she is literally the reason why I wanted to be a writer. That inspiration (and answer) was also what led me to win the prize, partially organised by my former Year 4 teacher (shout out to Ms Gaunt and her literary contacts). The winner of each school would secure the chance to be the first to read Candyfloss. And meet the queen herself. This was all to take place at a fancy 5 star hotel in Birmingham. It was the experience of a lifetime.
You see, no offence to the children’s writers of today, but when I was growing up, Jacqueline Wilson, author of classics such as Illustrated Mum, Dustbin Baby, Lola Rose, The Girls In Love series and more, all reigned the bookshelves. I have memories of Suitcase Kid being swapped for a copy of Vicky Angel (bad choice), and a Christmas where me and my friends read Clean Break, and our review of the book was the first thing we talked about after two weeks of silence. And obviously, there was the everyday comfort and pleasure of Tracy Beaker.
“She doesn’t say the right things. She constantly messes up. And frankly, her appearance isn’t well groomed nor palatable enough. But maybe, that’s why so many of us loved her.”
Unlike the binge watches of today, Tracy Beaker‘s slot was prime time TV real estate. Watching Tracy and the kids at the Dumping Ground: Louise, Justine Littlewood, Max (for the real OG fans), Dolly, Bouncer, and Lol after school at 4pm every weekday was my signal for rest and play.
It has now been 18 years since the pilot of Tracy Beaker, and our introduction to the bad-tempered-curly-haired-amateur-writer with the secretly mushy heart. Tonight, the iconic TV character is making her return in a new BBC three part series called My Mum Tracy Beaker. Named after the Jacqueline Wilson book of the same title, millennials everywhere are currently marking their calendars for this historic homecoming event.
The funny thing is, when I now think of Tracy Beaker by today’s filtered and perfectionist standards, she wouldn’t hold the crown as being the best example for young girls. She doesn’t say the right things. She constantly messes up. And frankly, her appearance isn’t well groomed nor palatable enough. But maybe, that’s why so many of us loved her. Just like the CBBC show, Jacqueline Wilson’s books did something that isn’t recommended when it comes to raising children: her characters and plot lines were flawed and tumultuous, yet always approachable to the child reading.
“Tracy Beaker, in all of its noughties British flavours, didn’t shy away from showing children how non-Disney life can be.”
Off the top of my head, I can recall difficult scenes from Tracy Beaker. From abandonment and neglectful parents, to storylines on growing up and trying to find a home that genuinely feels like a home, to what happens to siblings that become separated in care. There were also friendship breakups, lies and themes of grief and death. Tracy Beaker, in all of its noughties British flavours, didn’t shy away from showing children how non-Disney life can be before wrapping up each episode in a realistic, yet hopeful bow.
It’s possible that the reason why televised Tracy Beaker could handle these topics was because the children watching at the time weren’t having to deal with a pandemic, terrorism, global warming, and all The Bad Things in the world right now, therefore weren’t looking for escapist screen time.
In addition to the script’s telling of small and big problems, (Tracy putting on too much blush to Tracy being returned to the Dumping Ground by yet another set of foster parents), the cast of Tracy Beaker were also naturally diverse.
“As well as with race, the cast varied in age, ability and class, the latter being especially addressed.”
When we think of the word ‘diverse’ in TV in 2021, there’s usually a basic checklist of marginalised and minority factors that are sprinkled across the surface. Whereas in the world of Tracy Beaker, you had ‘Elaine The Pain’ who was South Asian, multiple Black main and side characters such as Duke, Dolly, and Ben, as well as mixed race characters such as Justine Littlewood. As well as with race, the cast also varied in age, ability and class, the latter being especially addressed.
Perhaps the diversity on the show didn’t feel as though it had been squeezed from a commercialised tube because it was based on children in care, with the broader unifying message being that these difficult situations may happen to any family or child.
“As much as she must’ve been a pest to parents everywhere, Tracy used her voice brazenly and openly. It’s exciting to think of what she might teach to everybody watching, young and old, this time around.”
All that to say, if you really graduated from the University of Beaker, you would’ve been told off once or twice for saying the words ‘bog off’ to family members or even threatened by your parents from watching the TV show with the “loud and shouty girl”.
It may sound like a stretch to label this children’s show and Tracy Beaker herself as feminist. Though I don’t believe in having to critique past works with today’s lens and forcibly make it into something it’s not; Tracy Beaker, as much as she must’ve been a pest to parents everywhere, used her voice brazenly and openly. It’s exciting to think of what she might teach to everybody watching, young and old, this time around.
I learned so much: Tracy wasn’t scared to say what she thought, was confident enough to feel all the rage and let it burst while always remaining forgiving (even to Justine at times). But more importantly, she showed young girls that you don’t have to be one way, nor do you have to be a “goody-two-shoes” (like Louise, no shade) to be validated, accepted and loved. She was always herself, and I believe, actually I know, that was the best example to grow up with.
The three-part series My Mum Tracy Beaker will air on the 12th, 13th and 14th of February.
Tahmina Begum is a writer, editor and creator of The Aram newsletter. She also contributed to books such as Mixed Feelings, Comfort Zones and Words By and is a regular chair and speaker. Follow her on Twitter: @tahminaxbegum and Instagram: @tahminaxbegum
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