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Cerrie Burnell: disabled actress, author and TV presenter

Cerrie Burnell is a British actress, author and TV presenter. She has an upper limb difference, having been born with her right arm ending slightly below the elbow, and dyslexia. Cerrie is best known for being a presenter of the BBC children’s channel CBeebies from 2009 to 2017. She has also made appearances on popular TV shows, including Grange Hill and Doctors, and is a best-selling children’s author.

Our writer, Emma Purcell, spoke to Cerrie Burnell about her life with her disability, her time at CBeebies, her acting career and becoming a children’s author.

Cerrie studied acting at Manchester Metropolitan University. She went on to perform at numerous theatre productions, spending time with the CTORio Political Theatre Company in Brazil and becoming a member of the National Youth Theatre.

In 2007, she wrote and starred in Winged – A Fairytale, a play about a one-winged fairy living in a London inner-city fairy community, staged at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

Cerrie later went on to make appearances in a number of prime-time television shows, including EastEnders, The Bill, Holby City, Comedy Lab, Grange Hill and Doctors.

In 2009, Cerrie became a presenter on the BBC children’s channel CBeebies, featuring in the shows Discover and Do and The Bedtime Hour.

But this was clouded by controversy, with parents complaining that the one-armed presenter was scaring children. Cerrie and the BBC were defended by disability organisations and Cerrie continued to present on CBeebies for eight years.

As well as her television career, Cerrie is a best-selling children’s author. She creates characters from a range of diverse backgrounds, including race, faith and disability.

Her first book, Snowflake, is about a young girl called Mia who is of dual heritage and is sent to live with her grandma. The book was inspired by Cerrie’s daughter, Amelie, who is also dual heritage.

Other books Cerrie has written include Mermaid, which features a disabled protagonist who is a wheelchair user and can also swim, and Fairy Dreams, a story about a girl with a hearing impairment.

Read on to find out more about Cerrie Burnell in her own words.

 

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Cerrie Burnell living with her disability

What was it like growing up with your a limb difference and one arm?

The reason I was born with one arm is a mystery, and not one I ever need to solve – it was just serendipity doing its thing!

When I was younger, I didn’t think that I was ‘disabled’ or that there was anything ‘wrong’ with me. It’s just part of my diversity – I have multiple diversities and that’s one I’m so proud of.

My mum had a great attitude about it too. Her ethos was, “Let’s just ignore it and not assume there’s a problem until there is one.”

Now that I understand the politics of it all more, I am delighted to call myself disabled.

My disability is also quite unusual in that it’s more aesthetic than anything else. So, I think it’s more about other people having to deal with it than me having issues.

I never lost a hand or an arm – I’ve only ever known this body. I’m just going about my life, almost oblivious to it. But other people, the able-bodied community, very much feel the loss of it.

Sometimes I get interrupted or stopped and almost interviewed about my arm, with comments like, “Oh, you’ve lost your arm.” I just think to myself, “I’ve not lost anything, I’m not that careless.”

Of course, I do find some things at home harder to do, but because I’ve always had one hand, I just have found a way to do it.

For instance, changing a light bulb is a massive pain in the ass, but I don’t think, “Oh gosh, my disability means I can’t have light.” I just found a way around it by asking someone to help.

 

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When did you realise that having one arm is considered a disability and how have people reacted to you?

I began to realise I have a ‘disability’ when I went to drama school at about 20. As soon as I arrived, I was told I am a disabled actor. To me, I’m an actor and I’ve got one hand, but I’m an actor first and foremost. But people we adamant that I’m a disabled actor.

I’ve had similar experiences when trying to get jobs in shops, hotels and pubs. People often asked: “How will you make a bed or carry drinks?”

I’ve since had lots of pub and bar jobs in Australia, Manchester and London – so it is possible. All I needed to do was learn how to do things, and find ways to adapt.

So often, the problem isn’t the disability, but other people’s perception of it. One thing I have learned is that if you are happy and smiley and have a positive attitude, you’re more likely to be employable.

Have you ever worn a prosthetic arm?

I used to, but I hated it from the word go because it was heavy, ugly and hot. The heat was the worst part. It was like having my arm constantly in a sauna or encased in lava, even on a cold day.

It also used to make a funny noise. The sweat sticks your skin to it, so when I took it off, it would make a fart noise. It also smelt. Essentially, I was just bad all round.

At the time, I actually had doctors say to me, “If you don’t wear this arm, you’re not going to have any friends.”

So I tried all kinds of weird hooks, arms, contraptions – you name it. But once I got to around age 9, I got rid of it all.

I appreciate that for some people, particularly if you’ve become an amputee, using a prosthetic can be life-changing and really build confidence.

But for me, because I didn’t really need it, I always felt like I was trying to hide my arm.

Cerrie Burnell becoming an actress

 

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What inspired you to become an actress?

Because I couldn’t read until the age of 9, due to my dyslexia, I developed really strong storytelling and communication skills. I also found that I could quite easily memorise pages of text after hearing them once or twice.

This prompted me to start drama classes, which I found incredibly freeing, joyful and fun. It was a brilliant, vibrant community where the emphasis was on imagination and creative play. It also meant that I could utilise the skills I had developed.

You’ve appeared in a variety of TV shows. What were your experiences of being cast in these programmes?

Grange Hill

Grange Hill was a difficult but fabulous experience. I got a phone call saying there was an audition for a character called ‘amputee’, which didn’t sound very appealing, especially as I’m not actually an amputee.

I read the script and it was abdominally bad. The character they had originally created was, in my opinion, unrealistic, damaging to disability representation and actually insulting.

I decided to go to the audition anyway, but to do a different character. Three weeks later, the casting team phoned me to say they had cut the original character and wanted to rewrite one based on me.

I spent half an hour telling them about me so that they truly understood my situation and that of someone with a limb difference.

After that, any scripts they had written – either with my character in or when people were talking about my character – was run by me. They were keen to ask my opinion and change anything I wanted.

I found it a really collaborative and amazing experience. They really listened to what I said, worked with me and championed diversity.

 

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Doctors

My character in Doctors was a longer-running part, on-screen for about six weeks. I also found that role really hard because the scripts were, to my mind, offensive.

I spoke to the producers about it on day two. I went through the scripts and suggested changes to almost all of it. But they weren’t as receptive as those on Grange Hill.

Fortunately, the other actors working on Doctors were amazing. Prior to me even arriving, a number of them had already raised concerns about my character.

I played a nurse working in a hospital and in literally every scene, there was an issue involving her disability. For example, people regularly questioned whether she could do certain things and were shocked when she could. Others were simply uncomfortable with her being a nurse.

I don’t know why people feel that they have to explain disability through comedy. Why and how is it funny? If someone’s going to write a comedy about disability, let it be someone with a disability, please?

I understand and appreciate people trying to raise awareness of the discrimination that exists within the world, but not when it’s done through an unrealistic representation – not everyone is prejudice about disability.

Do you feel that enough has been done to cast disabled actors on television programmes and films?

There is still an awfully long way to go in terms of the representation of disability on screen and the use of disabled actors.

I also think that the industry really needs more disabled talent behind the camera too, for example, writers, producers and commissioners. If you change the storytellers, you can change the story.

Cerrie Burnell as a children’s TV presenter on CBeebies

 

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How did you get the role as a CBeebies presenter and what did you enjoy most about the job?

Getting the job at CBeebies was fairly similar to any other acting audition, only a lot longer and more varied. We had to sing and write a short section to perform as a story.

Working at CBeebies was wonderful. I also loved that my disability was never mentioned or explained to the children watching – why would we have, it was irrelevant.

The same can be said for my co-presenter. He didn’t come on screen and say, ”I’m Welsh’, unless we were doing a link about the day of dragons. So, they made a decision not to mention it and to just get on with it.

I and many other disabled people don’t want or need to always be talking about our disability. I just wanted to live my life and show that difference is completely normal.

You left CBeebies in 2017. Would you ever consider returning or presenting on other TV channels?

I did CBeebies for eight years, so I feel like I have ticked that box. It was a great experience, but it’s time to move on and push diversity in other areas.

I do enjoy presenting if it’s a subject I feel moved by or am passionate about. But, for me, it would need to be interesting, informative and necessary.

For example, I have made documentaries about disability, prosthetics and/or discrimination, as it felt right for me to do so.

I also made an appearance on the Great British Menu, which was deliciously fun!

In addition, I feel like I’m getting to push diversity through my writing as well, so am keen to focus on that. At some point, I would absolutely love to move into screenwriting too.

Cerrie Burnell becoming a children’s author

 

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What inspired you to become an author?

As I’ve always been a storyteller – something that’s an intrinsic part of being an actor – and I love the gorgeous adventure of creating magical worlds, writing was a natural progression.

Because of my dyslexia, my mum read to me up until the age of 10. I loved children’s stories – The Magic Faraway Tree, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Heidi, The Secret Garden – and have been inspired by their authors.

As I grew, I continued to read kid’s books, such as Harry Potter and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, as I never got a chance to read them myself as a child.

Having so many stories and worlds to escape to was wonderful. But they were often fairly whitewashed and ableist versions of the world. I didn’t think of myself as any different from Alice in Wonderland at the time, but years later I understood there was a lack of diversity in children’s books.

There were no examples of disabled characters who were really wicked and cold, or the princess or champion. That’s what really inspired me to create the characters in my books.

Stories and books – whether we read them ourselves or listen to them being read aloud – are such a vital part of childhood. They expand our imaginations, help us learn empathy, give hope and inspire literacy and learning. So it’s incredibly important that we’re all represented in stories.

Have you got any new books due for release soon and would you consider writing stories for adults in the future?

My latest book, I Am Not A Label, was released on 7th July 2020. It’s an anthology of memoirs of disabled writers, athletes, artists, actors, thinkers and activists. I am super proud to bring this book to the world!

I would love to continue to write forever. It’s such an honour to write for children. I may at some point write for older readers, but that would depend on the story.

 

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What advice would you give to other disabled people wanting to go into acting, presenting and/or writing?

I would say never surrender and never give up, but don’t sacrifice your mental health or your sense of fun. You mustn’t prioritise work over everything else.

If your career is making you unhappy, don’t prioritise success over having a lovely life. If you’re not working, it doesn’t matter. It’s not necessarily a reflection on you but on the industry.

I think that sometimes I got in the way of my career. I wanted so desperately to be an actor, I pushed too hard and put undue stress on myself. I wish I had gone into it with a calmer mindset, rather than feeling I had to prove that I belonged there.

You can find out more about Cerrie Burnell by following her on Twitter and Instagram.

Interview by Emma Purcell – follow her blog Rock For Disability

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Emma Purcell

News Editor, Freelance Journalist and Blogger at Rock For Disability. Loves live music, comedy, acting, chocolate and a Harry Potter fanatic.
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