If you were a kid in the early ’00s, you remember Tracy Beaker. Her signature crazy curls, the Jacqueline Wilson books, and the iconic TV show starring Dani Harmer on CBBC. What you might not remember is that, in 2013, the spin-off shows Tracy Beaker Returns and The Dumping Ground were airing, and they were amazingly progressive for a network that has sometimes come under fire for lacking diversity.
You might remember that, in the original series, The Story of Tracy Beaker, Cara Readle played the character of Layla, a girl with cerebral palsy. Since then, the cast has expanded to include a huge range of diverse characters, so allow me to introduce you to them.
Like Layla, the character of Frank Matthews, played by Chris Slater, also has cerebral palsy, though this fact is something that none of the children ever really comment on, accepting it as a part of him. He’s a trickster along with his best friend Liam, and the fact he has a disability is pretty secondary to his character’s role in the show: one half of the partner in crime duo that cause mischief and mayhem within the Dumping Ground.
Bailey Wharton, played by Kasey MacKeller, is a keen footballer – though he is often accused of being arrogant for making comments about his superiority on the pitch. It’s revealed in the later series of The Dumping Ground that he is dyslexic, and he eventually lets his act of anger fall away to reveal a kind and caring person beneath the surface of overconfidence.
Finn McLaine is played by Ruben Reuter, and has Down’s Syndrome. After being maltreated by his foster parents, along with Harry (or, as I remember him ‘Giraffe Boy’), and ended up back in foster care at Ashdene House after not adjusting well to his foster home, and being treated poorly by his foster family. Finn is sensitive, and can get angry and upset when he’s frightened. He’s thoughtful and resourceful, and his character’s arc is intriguing.
Kitty (portrayed by Eleni Foskett ), a character who has an only brief role in the series, is extremely quiet and withdrawn, due to the fact she has unconfirmed (but greatly hinted to) autism. She doesn’t like most people touching her, and inadvertently causes Tracy to fall downstairs when she tries to defend herself against a hug. She’s extremely thoughtful and loves sewing, using her talents to make fellow Dumping Ground inhabitant Carmen a pillow out of her ruined dresses. Eventually, she is sent to a different care home that can cater for her particular needs.
Lastly, also on the autistic spectrum, is Gus Carmichael (played by Noah Marullo), who has (again, never outwardly stated but heavily implied) Asperger’s Syndrome (aka, ASD). He asks questions all the time, has a strict schedule, and writes everything down that happens in the Dumping Ground in his notebooks. In the series The Dumping Ground, he has a meltdown in the first episode because everything is too chaotic when the other children start fighting. He is eventually adopted by a lesbian couple (Ronnie and Dawn), another progressive and welcome move from the BBC to include diversity in the form of LGBT representation.
Since then, CBBC has made enormous progress on the diversity front. For one, one of the main characters, Benny, on the network’s show Wizards vs. Aliens comes out as gay to his best friend, who is hugely accepting, setting a brilliant example for children that being different is something that makes us special rather than being something “wrong”.
There’s obviously a lot more to do, but when I think back to my childhood, I realise just how much this show shaped me. I was probably just a little too old to have properly watched it, but I definitely remember watching some of the episodes on a Saturday morning. I was transfixed by Gus, who was so like me. Tracy Beaker was probably my first experience of what cerebral palsy was, my first look at what a panic attack looked like, and I can’t imagine how much it must have shaped my expectations of the world in how wonderfully diverse it was. Tracy Beaker, you deserve more recognition.
Stay safe, friends. x