CBeebies' Cerrie Burnell: 'I want to push diversity in other directions'

The TV presenter who refused to hide her disability is quitting the channel to focus on writing children’s books and acting

After eight years as a presenter on CBeebies, Cerrie Burnell has decided to move on and start a new chapter as an author and actor, spending time focusing on just one of her viewers – eight-year-old daughter Amelie.

“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. “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 leave 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 just time for something new now.”

Her arrival on the BBC’s dedicated channel for the under-sixes in 2009 was greeted by some hurtful headlines after a few people suggested on CBeebies message boards that children might be scared of her because she was born without the lower section of her right arm.

Sitting in a cafe in Brighton, where she is working on a new children’s book partly set in the city, Burnell says any adverse reaction was due 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 on Channel 4 during its coverage of the London 2012 Paralympics and a greater push for more diversity on television have improved attitudes, she believes.

“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.”

Cerrie Burnell, left, in the 2012 CBeebies Christmas panto
Burnell, left, in the 2012 CBeebies Christmas panto. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC

She says leaving the channel was not an easy decision 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 she was told her series of books about a girl called Harper with a magic scarlet umbrella had been sold to nine territories – it has since risen to 13 – including Iran and the US.

Burnell began writing plays after studying drama at university. She is adapting her first play, Winged, into a film, 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 featuring children who looked like her, so wrote Snowflakes, which Oxford Playhouse turned into a musical 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.”

When the channel moved from London to Salford in 2011 Burnell went with it, but then began commuting after moved back south to live near her parents in south-east London so they could help 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,” says Burnell.

She explains her choice of description: “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 a relationship or not.”

She believes diversity on TV and in books is 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 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, Fairy Dreams, will be published this summer and features a girl who is hearing-impaired but can communicate with fairies.

Snowflakes performed at the Oxford Playhouse
Burnell’s story Snowflakes was turned into a musical at the Oxford Playhouse last year. Photograph: Geraint Lewis

Burnell, who is sensitive to noise because she is severely dyslexic, says 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 will not miss about presenting is that “you sort of always have to be ‘on’”, 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”.

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”, she says with a chortle. “It wouldn’t be based on my life – a kind of Bridesmaids-esque film.”

She enjoys Netflix series Stranger Things and watches mostly UK and Australian shows with her daughter, with CBBC’s The Worst Witch a particular favourite. “There’s this danger 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 leaving. She will miss it, especially the pantomimes, but hints there is a strong possibility she will make guest appearances reading stories.

So while she wants to continue her dedication towards diversity, she says: “I’m leaving Narnia but I’m leaving the wardrobe door slightly open.”


Age: 37

Education: Cavendish secondary school, Eastbourne; Manchester Metropolitan University

Career: 2002-2008, actor and playwright, with acting parts in The Bill, Holby City, EastEnders and Grange Hill; 2009-2017, presenter on CBeebies along with other shows such as The One Show and The Wright Stuff; also the author of six books


Tara Conlan

The GuardianTramp

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