What I’m trying to say is that I consume TV in such a way that – against my better instincts – characters start to feel like friends, like people I know intimately, like people who always have been and always will be a part of my life. Do I know Tracy Beaker? No, because she’s not a real girl. But have I grown up alongside her, watching her transform from a “BOG OFF”-shouting terror who’s lethal with blue eyeshadow to an accomplished young woman with a daughter of her own? Yep, and if you’re reading this, you probably came along for the ride too.
Earlier this week, a trailer for the brand new Tracy Beaker spin-off show, My Mum Tracy Beaker, broke all of the self-respecting parts of the internet, with thousands of agèd millennials swearing to tune in when the first episode debuts at 5PM tonight on CBBC. Although The Story of Tracy Beaker first aired over 19 years ago, the worm-eater still holds massive cultural sway. Can the same be said for her contemporaries – which I’ve just read off this inexplicably active TV guide from 2002 – SpaceVets, Cavegirl, and I Love Mummy? Bog! Off! Bog off to Australia!
What gives the Beaker such enduring appeal? I wish I could intellectualise it. I wish I could Michael-Caine-in-the-Muppet-Christmas-Carol-it: “No matter how many shimmer lipsticks the costume designers gave her, Elaine the Pain always played it straight.” But the true joy of Tracy Beaker was that they almost never played it straight – although they occasionally slowed down the theme song for a sad scene or did a greyed-out flashback of Tracy’s mum’s neglectful parenting, they didn’t regularly try to be worthy and deep like fellow cartoon hallucinator Lizzie McGuire.
(And yes, okay, this did mean Jaqueline Wilson got more than a few troubling letters from kids who thought being in care was “cool”, but the programme did seek advice from real care workers and offered set visits to kids in care.)
Almost everything about the Tracy Beaker TV show is gloriously camp; almost every single line is uttered in a way that means you can actually hear the director off-screen saying, “Okay, can you try it again with a little more emphasis on the NOT?” Where else could you watch so many stinky sock/food fight/fake illness/running away-based hijinks? Who else dared feature so many glittery chokers and funky fleeces in a single shot?
This unwavering commitment to am-dram is what makes me so confident about My Mum Tracy Beaker. When I first heard Justine Littlewood was coming back for the show, I feared a recast with the intensity that most people fear death. But they brought back actress Montanna Thompson, even though she hasn’t acted in anything since 2017. They brought her back! They brought her back and they gave her the same slicked-back hairdo! It’s enough to make the hayfever prick your eyes.
Cam’s back too, and now is as good a time as any to ask her a quick Q. Right now, I basically am Cam from series one, in that I’m a freelance writer and I have an absolutely terrible taste in t-shirts, and I have to say, I’m in no position to foster a kid who would set fire to my toaster. I mean, good for Cam, obviously, what a great person, but also: what’s your deal?
Of course, Cam’s nobody’s favourite – that honour usually goes to Duke, who I would like to pay to hug me if he wouldn’t find that too weird, or maybe Mike, the longest-standing member of the Beaker cast. For sheer acting prowess, however, we have to bow down to Nisha Nayar for her portrayal of social worker Elaine. Have you ever seen someone so committed to a physical comedy role that they manage to mess up their hair without running their fingers through it? Have you ever seen someone slap their cardigan sleeves together in joy? Wear a hot pink bicycle helmet on the side of their face while riding a tandem? Shout-sing an entire musical number while wearing a blonde wig and twirling a red and black feather boa?
According to a Guardian article from 2002 (history!), Tracy Beaker’s first series was the most-watched children’s programme in its time slot, with 36 percent of viewers aged 4-15 tuning in twice a week. Each episode was around 14 minutes long – a fact that made me gasp, because surely not? Every episode featured so much life, so many exaggerated facial expressions, so many sassy hands on so many sassy hips, it hardly feels possible it was contained in less than a quarter of an hour. The unparalleled 2004 hit, Tracy Beaker: The Movie of Me, also has a shockingly short run time of just one hour and nine minutes, though it used that time to give us everything we wanted and more.
Lesser shows would’ve shied away from having the main character finally confront her absentee mum – they’d have kept it one of those annoying never-to-be-seen things like the parents’ faces in Cow and Chicken or what the hell Mona’s deal was in Mona the Vampire. In The Movie of Me, not only do we meet Tracy’s mum, we get to see Tracy throw orange squash over her head. Catharsis! And, despite years of exaggeration, it turns out Tracy’s mum actually does work in the movies, and we get to visit the set for a medieval film which inexplicably features ye olde rainbow confetti.
Five years later, Tracy Beaker: The Game came out on Nintendo DS, offering us all the opportunity to visit the Dumping Ground and undertake missions like “Get some juice for Louise”. Since then, The Story of Tracy Beaker has accomplished an impressive 11 series spin-offs – though the original series ended in 2005, Tracy Beaker Returns ran from 2010 to 2012, and The Dumping Ground has since been running from 2013. This means every Brit who was a child some point in the last 20 years has laid claim to Beaker, which I will now illustrate with this beautiful comment that a user named pinkfluffyunicorns_dancing_on_rainbows left on the CBBC site four years ago:
“Honestly I feel bad for all the kids who only recently started watching [The Dumping Ground] and didn’t watch Tracy Beaker Returns as they missed out on so many great characters,” they write. “To me they weren’t just characters, they were real people that I could relate to.”
Will Tracy Beaker bog off anytime soon? My Mum Tracy Beaker is based on Jacqueline Wilson’s book of the same name, which came out in 2018. Since then Wilson has released We Are The Beaker Girls, meaning there’s ample more source material. Could we feasibly we watching Tracy Beaker for another 20 years? Could we be treated to a 20-episode true crime podcast investigating who took Rio’s Maroon 5 CD?
I hope so. Because in the end, Tracy’s appeal was right there, under our noses at the start of every episode. She can make her world come true. All her dreams will see her through. Believe her now: she will win some day.