‘I’ve done all I can on CBee­bies and now it’s time to take the next leap’

Cer­rie Bur­nell talks about re­ac­tions to a dis­abled pre­sen­ter, be­ing a ‘solo par­ent’ and her writ­ing and act­ing am­bi­tions – as well as the dark side of Twit­ter

The Guardian - - MEDIA - Tara Con­lan

Af­ter eight years as a pre­sen­ter on CBee­bies, Cer­rie Bur­nell has de­cided it’s time to move on, leav­ing to start a new chap­ter as an au­thor and ac­tor and spend time fo­cused on just one of her view­ers – her eight-year-old daugh­ter.

“She’s grown up with her mum sort of be­ing like an at­trac­tion at the park: ‘There’s the ice cream van and Cer­rie from CBee­bies!’” Bur­nell says of her daugh­ter Amelie. “While she’s still young I just still want to have more ad­ven­tures with her.’

The pre­sen­ter has be­come a fa­mil­iar fix­ture in the lives of mil­lions of chil­dren but says it “feels like the right time to go” fol­low­ing the suc­cess of her chil­dren’s books.

“It has been a re­ally in­cred­i­ble eight years,” she says but, “I’m happy to be go­ing and I mean that in the loveli­est sense; I’m grate­ful for all the time I’ve had up there [in Sal­ford] but it’s time for some­thing new now.”

Her ar­rival in 2009 on the chan­nel was greeted by some hurt­ful head­lines af­ter a few sug­gested on the CBee­bies web­site that chil­dren might be scared of her be­cause she was born miss­ing the lower sec­tion of her right arm.

Sit­ting in a cafe in Brighton, where she is work­ing on a new chil­dren’s book set partly in the town, the vi­va­cious Bur­nell thinks any ad­verse re­ac­tion was down to ig­no­rance. “I don’t mean that in a rude way – I just think they hadn’t been ex­posed to it.

“I think hav­ing some­one who is speak­ing di­rectly to your child is a lot more in­ti­mate and more per­sonal than just see­ing a char­ac­ter in a wheel­chair.

“I think hav­ing a chil­dren’s TV pre­sen­ter, for the adult, is more chal­leng­ing. We live in an age where ev­ery­one thinks their opin­ion mat­ters: that’s the dark side of Twit­ter re­ally, that ev­ery­one can say any­thing.”

Her on-screen pres­ence, the 2012 Par­a­lympics and a greater push for more di­ver­sity on tele­vi­sion have im­proved at­ti­tudes.

“I think the di­ver­sity is­sue has changed and our aware­ness has grown [but] there’s plenty more for me to do. I want to write more di­verse books and scripts and [get] them made and com­mis­sioned, per­haps even be in them. I feel like I’ve done all I can do on CBee­bies and now I need to take the next leap and want to push in other di­rec­tions.”

Leav­ing the chan­nel was “not an easy de­ci­sion to make” as it has been like “a fam­ily” to Bur­nell and her daugh­ter. She fi­nally made up her mind af­ter be­ing of­fered an au­di­tion for a TV show on the same day as learn­ing that her Harper se­ries of books about a girl with a magic scar­let um­brella had been sold to nine ter­ri­to­ries (that has now risen to 13) in­clud­ing Iran and the US.

Bur­nell be­gan writ­ing plays af­ter study­ing drama at univer­sity. She is now adapt­ing her first play Winged for the screen, but it was the ar­rival of her daugh­ter that prompted her to start writ­ing books “in the mid­dle of the night”.

Amelie is mixed race but Bur­nell could not find sto­ries that fea­tured chil­dren who looked like her so wrote Snowflakes, which Ox­ford Play­house turned into a mu­si­cal play last Christ­mas.

She ex­plains: “I’ve spo­ken very pos­i­tively about be­ing a solo par­ent but it’s a shock hav­ing a baby for any­one, those first six months. None of my friends had chil­dren, the preg­nancy wasn’t planned, she was a sur­prise. Sud­denly I went from be­ing this cool girl around Hack­ney, well I thought I was cool, go­ing out do­ing what­ever I wanted … and then sud­denly you’re in the house all the time. It can be very iso­lat­ing. For me writ­ing was a way of turn­ing the iso­la­tion into some­thing pos­i­tive. As a re­sult I can write any­where.”

She adds: “I would like to have more chil­dren but there’s ab­so­lutely no way you can con­tem­plate bring­ing a baby into the world when you’re go­ing to Manch­ester ev­ery other week.”

When I ask if there is any­thing she will not miss about CBee­bies she re­sponds im­me­di­ately, “the trav­el­ling – only be­cause I’m a mum, oth­er­wise it wouldn’t bother me.”

“You have that guilt, it doesn’t mat­ter how much money you’ve got or the most sup­port­ive part­ner, no-one can take away the guilt. So­ci­ety con­di­tions men to not have that ex­pec­ta­tion that they will be there so they ex­pect to miss things.”

As an au­thor it gives her more con­trol over how she works.

Af­ter the chan­nel moved to Sal­ford in 2011 Bur­nell went with it but then be­gan com­mut­ing as she moved back down to live near her par­ents near Brom­ley, Kent, so they could help her with the en­er­getic Amelie. “As I’m a solo par­ent, I just couldn’t make the child­care and the fran­tic sched­ule we have work up there with­out any fam­ily up there at all.”

She ex­plains her choice of de­scrip­tion of her sta­tus: “I tend to say solo par­ent as when I say sin­gle par­ent peo­ple kind of pre­sume it’s a neg­a­tive. It shouldn’t be a neg­a­tive la­bel as it’s the thing I’m most proud of. I’ve not been sin­gle all of that time … I’m her par­ent whether I’m in re­la­tion­ship or not.”

To her, di­ver­sity on TV and in books are “the same bat­tle”.

“I think for chil­dren it’s changed. I don’t know if that’s fil­ter­ing fur­ther up the food chain to the peo­ple who are mak­ing the de­ci­sions. I think the BBC and par­tic­u­larly chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion has al­ways been ex­cel­lent at di­ver­sity.

“All that needs to hap­pen now is that things need to move out a bit so you turn on any panel show and you can have a dis­abled co­me­dian on there and it’s not a big thing. I think we’re at that point. I just don’t think it’s enough.”

Her lat­est book, out this sum­mer, is called Fairy Dreams and fea­tures a girl who is hear­ing-im­paired but can com­mu­ni­cate with fairies.

Bur­nell is sen­si­tive to noise be­cause, she says, “I’m se­verely dyslexic” and in Fairy Dreams she wanted the mes­sage to be that, “ev­ery­one has their own gifts and tal­ents and you don’t have to be loud and bang­ing a drum … some­thing mag­i­cal can still hap­pen.”

One thing she won’t miss about pre­sent­ing is “you sort of al­ways have to be ‘on’ re­ally” even through ill­ness and “if you’re not po­lite to peo­ple who come up and want a photo you run the risk of some­one slag­ging you off on­line.”

With a chor­tle she says she would also like to write a com­edy for adults “about a chil­dren’s TV pre­sen­ter who’s on the verge of a ner­vous break­down. It wouldn’t be based on my life! A kind of Brides maid sesque film.”

She en­joys Stranger Things (“I’d love to be in it!”) and watches mostly UK and Aus­tralian shows with her daugh­ter and loves CBBC’s The Worst Witch: “There’s this dan­ger that if you watch an Amer­i­can equiv­a­lent it’s all just so kind of miss­ing the point of child­hood in a way, it’s like they’re al­ready 14 when they’re 10. Aus­tralian TV isn’t like that, it’s still lovely and gentle.”

Cbee­bies will mark her de­par­ture next month so chil­dren know she is off. She will un­doubt­edly miss it, es­pe­cially the pan­tomimes but hints “there is a strong pos­si­bil­ity I’ll be pop­ping up there again” read­ing sto­ries.

So while she wants to con­tinue “the kind of ded­i­ca­tion I have to­wards di­ver­sity” and “fur­ther that”, she says, “I’m leav­ing Nar­nia but I’m leav­ing the wardrobe door slightly open.”

‘Things need to move on so you turn on a panel show and you have a dis­abled co­me­dian and it’s not a big thing’

‘If you watch an Amer­i­can chil­dren’s show it’s miss­ing the point of child­hood. It’s like they’re 14 when they’re 10’

Cer­rie Bur­nell was a fa­mil­iar fix­ture in the lives of mil­lions of chil­dren as a pre­sen­ter on CBee­bies for around eight years. Be­low, CBee­bies Christ­mas Panto in 2012 – Bur­nell plays Jill in Jack and the Beanstalk Main pho­to­graph: Lynda Kelly

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