‘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
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