f somebody had told me that I would still be talking about Tracy Beaker at 32, I’d have been like ‘Really?’” says Dani Harmer, who first appeared on TV as the fiery and funny hero aged 12. “But here we are.”
She’s talking via Zoom from her kitchen in Berkshire, wearing an old black Cinderella T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “Shoes can change your life”. There’s a vase of fake blue roses behind her and plenty of finished cups of tea on the table.
We’re talking because Tracy Beaker is back. My Mum Tracy Beaker, based on the latest of Jacqueline Wilson's bestselling book series, premieres on CBBC this week (12 Feb). The former tearaway teen with a heart of gold, who grew up in a children’s home and shouted “bog off” at anyone who got on her nerves, is now a single mum. She’s living on a rundown London council estate with her 10-year-old daughter and is whisked off her feet by a millionaire footballer.
“When I first heard about the book My Mum Tracy Beaker, I was like 'I wonder if Jacqueline knows I’ve just had a child and that’s what sparked the idea?" says Harmer, who has a four-old daughter, Avarie-Belle, and lives with her partner Simon Brough and her younger sister, Betsy. Ten years since she quit the role aged 22, she still looks just like the younger Tracy with her black curly hair.
She is home-schooling her daughter during lockdown. “It’s a big responsibility teaching little people how to read and write with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever,” says Harmer. “It’s bonkers. We are trying not to get frustrated with each other. I’m trying my best to be a teacher, but I’m an actor.”
The new show follows on from two hit CBBC series. The Story of Tracy Beaker, which began in 2002, was based on Wilson’s 1991 book and ran for five series. In 2010, five years after the original show ended, The Return of Tracy Beaker saw Tracy back at “The Dumping Ground” (the nickname for her children's home) to work as a care assistant.
“I went through a stage when I was younger where I was like, ‘I just don’t want to be Tracy Beaker anymore,'” Harmer admits. But now she sees as “a kind of blessing”. “For me to be able to nurture this one character throughout different aspects of her life has been such a treat and it is really rare for an actor to be able to do that.”
Harmer says that Tracy Beaker creator Wilson has always been very “complimentary” about her playing the role, for which she won a BAFTA in 2010. “She just said, ‘She’s your Tracy and she’s exactly how I pictured it.’” But she's never escaped Tracy. “I get called Tracy all the time – I’m totally used to it,” she says.
Harmer – who attended drama lessons from the age of five and then won a scholarship to Redroofs Theatre School in Maidenhead at the age of seven– did branch out. In 2008, she played a version of herself in both the BBC sitcoms Dani’s House, as a teen actor stuck at home caring for her two younger siblings, and its spin-off series Dani’s Castle, in which she inherits an Irish castle from a long-lost aunt.
In 2012, she was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. She was bold and daring, shimmering while doing the samba to Beyoncé's “Single Ladies”, though she's since revealed that she was fat-shamed by trolls throughout her time on the show. Still, she made it to the final. She played Janet in the 2013 UK tour of the stage production The Rocky Horror Show, appeared in numerous pantomimes while a career as a pop star “slipped under the radar” after she signed a £3m record deal in 2008. Her debut album Superheroes was rumoured to have been pulled after poor sales.
“I recorded 'Free' which became the theme tune to Dani’s House and Universal wanted to turn me into a pop star – but it didn’t pan out,” she says, unfazed. “It was fine by me. I thought it was a bit of a strange idea. I was quite happy not to be a pop star – but it seemed like a fun thing to do at the time.”
But now she says: “Being mum comes first and career second.” That’s why it was “tough” filming My Mum Tracy Beaker in October during the pandemic. She was apart from her daughter for the five weeks of filming to create a bubble with the other actors. “The mum guilt is off the scale!” she tweeted at the time. “Let’s hope these 5 weeks go super quick! Thank goodness for FaceTime.”
The hard work paid off. The reboot, told from the perspective of Tracy's daughter Jess (newcomer Emma Maggie Davies), is a heartwarming portrayal of a mother and daughter struggling to make ends meet. Tracy is juggling three jobs, including one as a dog walker. “She wants to be there for Jess in a way that her mum wasn’t for her,” says Harmer.
When Tracy falls for Sean “Football” Godfrey (Jordan Duvigneau), a rich and famous retired footballer, the mum-daughter duo are soon hanging out at his sprawling minimalist mansion and lounging by his pool in fluffy bathrobes. But all that glitters is not gold. Is it all too good to be true?
Jess isn’t sold on the idea; even when he gets her the rescue dog she always wanted, she stomps off in true Beaker fashion. It’s funny, deeply moving, and just as relatable as ever; the original series was watched by a generation of twenty and thirty-somethings who identified with the gutsy and emotional Tracy, and touched on heavier themes that other kid's TV didn't dare to broach. The reboot is aimed at not just seven to 11-year-olds, but the adults who enjoyed the Tracy Beaker series as children.
“Tracy is dealing with more adult issues – meeting a bloke and falling madly in love, losing herself a little bit and finding her way back,” says Harmer. It’s nostalgic; returning characters include Tracy’s foster mum, Cam (Lisa Coleman), Tracy's nemesis Justine Littlewood (Montanna Thompson), and Tracy’s estranged birth mum Carly Beaker (Ruth Gemmell).
The love between Tracy and Jess is palpable; it's what makes the show. “Just be careful. I don’t want you to get hurt,” Jess tells her mum about her new boyfriend. “I’m meant to look after you, OK?” says Tracy. “Remember nobody hurts the Beaker girls.”
Tracy may have moved on from social workers, foster carers, and adoption, but her past is never far away. Jess explains early on that “all my mum wanted at my age was to live with her mum in their own home – so I’m living my mum’s dream”.
“It's one of the only voices for care experienced people on kid’s TV,“ says Harmer, using the term for those who have been or are currently in care. ”Of course, Tracy’s experience is unique, but I didn’t really know much about care experienced people at all growing up. It felt more like a taboo subject, so it’s been an important subject that gives kids a reference point.”
Is Harmer like Tracy in real life? “I think Tracy and I are getting more similar as we get older,” she says. “We are both fiercely protective of our children. We would do anything for them,” She laughs. “But Tracy is way more ballsy.”
‘My Mum Tracy Beaker’ premieres on CBBC and BBC iPlayer at 5pm on 12 Feb
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