There are times when a central character is so integral to the success of a drama that questions are asked about whether the series can continue without them. Think Taggart, for example, or Morse. It is a situation that rarely crops up in children’s television, but last year when actress Dani Harmer finally bid farewell to CBBC’s Tracy Beaker – a phenomenally successful role that she played on and off for a decade – the producers and writers behind the show were faced with just such a dilemma.
Via several series of The Story of Tracy Beaker and Tracy Beaker Returns –inspired by the books of Jacqueline Wilson – viewers have witnessed the adventures of this young girl growing up, and later working, in the fictional care home Elm Tree House (nicknamed The Dumping Ground). So could the stories really continue without Tracy being at the core of the action?
The answer is yes, as CBBC recently launched The Dumping Ground, a spin-off series that puts the children of Elm Tree House at its heart.
[pullquote name=”Lead writer Elly Brewer”]We knew the characters were popular and hoped the audience would go with that. I was so thrilled when the first Friday episode was number one in the BBC iPlayer ratings[/pullquote]
“There was a long debate about whether we should replace Tracy with another care worker,” says award-winning lead writer Elly Brewer who has worked on all three strands of the show, “but we soon realised that wasn’t an option. Jacqueline had created such a staggeringly fantastic character and she trusts us to be faithful to what she started.
“We went on to examine what happens when Tracy is gone and the focus then shifts to those other characters, the young people in care, which the audience has grown to know and love. Their lives at The Dumping Ground became the heart of the drama.”
Brewer explains how, in the past, the starting point for an episode was creating a great story about the youngsters at the care home, but then asking what Tracy would do in reaction to that. How could she help the children solve their problems and what would she learn from the experience?
The Dumping Ground provides a different way of working. “Before, we had to weave the children’s stories through Tracy. She was the key to what they were doing and the audience wanted to know how she would interact. Now the stories of those other characters have become bigger and there has been a shift in the dramatic focus,” she says.
A good judge of these changes is actor Connor Byrne who appeared as care worker Mike Milligan in the very first series of Tracy Beaker in July 2002. Since his return to the Tracy Beaker camp three years later, he has remained a regular cast member. Indeed, Mike’s paternal relationship with Tracy always added an emotional depth to episodes, particularly during Tracy Beaker Returns. So how successful does he think the transition has been?
“Now the show has changed, the other kids are being given a chance to blossom, we see how their characters develop and grow,” he says. “And the kids ultimately end up acting you off the screen. They really are some of the best actors I have ever worked with – they demonstrate that old mantra of ‘don’t act, just be’.”
The writers behind the different series have rarely shied away from hard-hitting storylines, with the caveat that topics are treated sensitively and with the core audience of six to 12-year-olds in mind. Among the issues covered in the early episodes of The Dumping Ground was the prospect of one child being fostered by a same-sex couple.
Brewer is proud of the story: “I was interested that a lot of young people can be very conservative, so I wanted to explore that aspect of it, plus it was an opportunity to show the different sides of the debate. There was no reason why we should avoid such a storyline, as long as we remained sensitive to our audience.
“We made the decision back on Tracy Beaker Returns to have storylines that give a picture of what life is really like for kids in care, to focus on the drama as well as keeping the lighter, humorous stuff in. Animated illustrations by Nick Sharratt [the brother of Stage contributor Ben] which are intercut between some of the scenes are fantastic in the way they use humour and also move the story on.”
The age range of the core audience has also influenced the decision to bring in three new young faces to join the other children at The Dumping Ground. Brewer outlines how the creative team always strives for a varied ensemble that the viewers can relate to.
“Members of the audience often want to be like their favourite characters or imagine being their mates, so it has been important to introduce new characters at both ends of the age spectrum,” she says.
Actress Leanne Dunstan, who plays teenager Faith, was the first of these new Dumping Ground residents to be seen in the 11-part series and was excited to see how the mix of new and familiar faces changed the dynamic.
“I really admire how the scripts combine lots of humour and fun while tackling important subjects that have a meaning and message to them that everyone can relate to,” she explains.
Brewer admits she was worried about what viewers would think of the changes with Tracy gone. But she says: “We knew the characters were popular and hoped the audience would go with that. I was so thrilled when the first Friday episode was number one in the BBC iPlayer ratings from 10am on the following Sunday morning until Monday lunchtime.
“I’m so proud of how wide the audience is too. There are people who loved The Story of Tracy Beaker, tuned into Tracy Beaker Returns and now The Dumping Ground is a bit of a guilty pleasure. I had no idea how popular Tracy Beaker was going to be back in 2002, I just knew it could be fun. But its success has been extraordinary.”
The Dumping Ground continues on CBBC on Fridays at 5pm