How we made The Story of Tracy Beaker

Jacqueline Wilson: ‘All my children’s books had sunk without a trace – then I saw an advert for foster children and thought: What a horrible thing’

I’d been writing children’s books for a while, but they had mostly disappeared without a trace. One day, I saw an advert for foster children – and there were photographs of them. I was taken aback by this whole page of children smiling rather desperately and I couldn’t help thinking: “What a horrible thing to see these children advertised like this.” I realised I could write about one of these kids because I could imagine how it must feel. Almost immediately, this feisty little girl came into my head, and Tracy Beaker was born.

I called her care home the Dumping Ground and focused the story on Tracy’s friendships with the other kids living there, all trying to have normal lives in some pretty extraordinary circumstances. Throughout, there was the story of Tracy’s relationship with her eventual adoptive mother, Cam, as she tries to understand why she ended up in care.

The book was published in 1991. I can’t say it was an overnight success but it did better than my others and soon a wonderful producer at the BBC, Sue Nott, told me she was desperate to make it into a TV series. She had trouble though: some people believed Tracy wasn’t an aspirational character and wouldn’t be popular, but Sue persisted. A decade after the first book, the show started.

I thought they captured its spirit perfectly and Dani Harmer was just superb as Tracy. We were exploring some quite adult themes and I didn’t think it was going to be so big. Years later, though, I was on Blue Peter and they had a huge cardboard cutout of Tracy behind me. I was sitting at her feet, like she’d taken over me. By then, if I walked down the street and people recognised me, they’d call out: “Tracy Beaker!”

I wrote several more books about Tracy, eventually moving on to her becoming a mum herself. It would be wonderful if we had Tracy having to go into a home for the elderly, too, bringing her story full circle. But I see Tracy having a wonderful future no matter what, even if it’s only in my head. Through Tracy, I’ve done all sorts of work with the fostering network. Some kids I met said Tracy raised their status at school. Of course, because the books and shows are aimed at children, you can’t include the whole reality. Being a child in care is no picnic.

I was so charmed when I heard that Stormzy had the Tracy Beaker theme tune on his latest album. You couldn’t get a cooler guy to enjoy it.

I was a big fan of Jacqueline’s writing and had read lots of her books but not Tracy Beaker. I was at drama school when the casting call came for the show. I had a panic and borrowed a copy, but I didn’t manage to read the whole thing. I still haven’t to this day!

They had struggled to find someone to play Tracy and I just showed up and shouted a lot, was quite stroppy, and had this big curly hair. I got the part and it was huge for me – I was only 12. I had to learn a lot of lines but I really enjoyed myself. Since the episodes were only 15 minutes long and ran straight after school, I wasn’t sure anyone would watch it, but it went on to be huge.

We would get messages saying we were giving looked-after kids a voice, especially younger ones. It made me so happy. I still get people reaching out to me. Growing up as a teenager on screen is hard though. It wasn’t the most flattering thing – to see myself on TV with braces and feeling awkward. And you can’t show all the aspects of real life on kids’ TV, so when I got to 16 I left. I wanted to spread my wings, though I came back years later to play Tracy as a social worker.

It’s so lovely that the show is on iPlayer now so people in lockdown can relive their childhoods. My sister finds it really funny to put it on in front of my daughter, but she just gets confused. She’s more into Mr Tumble. I would never say never about returning to the role, but for now I’m using this lockdown to finally read all of the books.

The Tracy Beaker Podcast is available on BBC Sounds; all five series are on BBC iPlayer.

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