She was Penny Pocket from Balamory but Kim Tserkezie has other tricks up her sleeve. DAVID WHETSTONE finds out about her new publishing venture
Five minutes in the company of Kim Tserkezie will convince you there’s no irony in the title of her intended book series for young children.
It is called The Wheelie Wonderful Life of Millie Monroe and the first book in the series, Toys for Tomorrow, is published this week.
Millie, like Kim, uses a wheelchair but it doesn’t cramp her style. Every Saturday she helps her Grandad in his toy shop but on her first day she knocked a few toys over.
“Grandad now understands that wheelchair users, like me, need plenty of space,” says Millie on the next page.
The impression you get from Millie is that she does indeed have a ‘wheelie’ wonderful life and the same goes for her creator.
Kim, who lives in Newcastle, radiates positivity. She has done stuff – like microlighting – that many a so-called able-bodied person would think twice about.
Most people will know Kim from Balamory, the jolly TV drama series for pre-schoolers which was produced from 2002-5 and shown on BBC One, BBC Two and CBeebies.
It was filmed mostly in Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull. Kim played Penny Pocket who ran the shop and café with Suzie Sweet. Among the other characters were Miss Hoolie, the teacher, Josie Jump, a fitness instructor, and PC Plum.
“We were such a really happy family,” says Kim over coffee at the Tyneside Cinema which she says has pretty much become her office these days.
“We made 254 episodes and did two big arena tours. We all loved our jobs but in some way it was nice to go out on a high. It was a huge success. People loved it. I’ve even had Spanish waiters saying, ‘Balamory!’”
The episodes are still out there in the television ether, wooing new generations of TV tots, but Kim has moved on.
The little book is the latest manifestation of her restless creativity.
“I’ve done a lot of scriptwriting in the last few years but a little while ago I got up one morning and thought, I feel like writing a short story,” she says.
“That was how it began. I spent that weekend writing this little story about me and my experiences with my Grandad. It just flowed out of my mind. I had the urge to write something myself that would be completed.”
This, she explains, contrasts with her experience of broadcasting where collaboration comes with the territory along with the distinct possibility of a project never coming to fruition.
Having written the book, she says, people started asking to see it.
“I got into conversations with various people who were writers and they said, ‘You should do something’. Interest came from Kitty Cat Publishing, in Edinburgh, who said they were keen to take it on.”
Kim comes clean and says Kitty Cat Publishing was set up by a friend, Catherine Muir, who used to work as a make-up artist on Balamory.
“She used to tell me about her writing. She wrote a book about bullying based on her personal experience and she said she was looking at stories that would explore issues and have contemporary relevance.
“We got talking about Millie. But I must say that when I first imagined her it was quite natural to me to make her a wheelchair user.
“It did get me thinking back to my experience of reading stories to my own children (Jay, who is 20, and Stella, six) and the images of disabled children in literature. I couldn’t think of a single example of a wheelchair user.”
It seems there is a gap to be filled. Kim says she sees Millie Monroe as a series – indeed, she has already announced her as such – with subsequent stories fleshing out her view of the world.
“I don’t want to write disability-led stories; rather, I want to make disability part of Millie’s experience. I don’t make much of her being a wheelchair user in the first story but it determines how she thinks. I wanted to offer a fresh perspective.”
Kim, who has a Greek father and a Geordie mother –”We’re a Geordie Greek family” – intends her book series to include “glimmers” of her experiences when growing up.
She laughs when she remembers wanting so much to have a role in a school nativity play, “but I ended up being sat there with a xylophone.
“I think I was an actor all along but I was never given the roles. For a start, I wouldn’t have been able to get on the stage. I remember one time my job was to sit at the side of the stage holding up placards while everyone else was having fun.”
At her Gateshead secondary school she was the only disabled child.
“I went back there recently to do a presentation and found I still couldn’t get on the stage – and this was a new build. I don’t want to be negative but, really, I wasn’t impressed.”
That said, Kim won’t have a word said about her own teachers.
“I’d been through inclusive education right from nursery school and had a wide group of friends. At times I wasn’t aware that I was different.
“When I went to senior school I was suddenly told I would have to leave because the teachers were carrying me up flights of stairs to my lessons. The local authority said that for insurance reasons that couldn’t continue. But the school fought to keep me. The teachers were lovely and I had the positive, inclusive education that I wanted.
“But I think it was a turning point. As you get older you start to question things. The solution there had been to remove me rather than change the environment.”
Always interested in the media, Kim did work experience at the BBC in Newcastle. Deciding she didn’t want to go to university, she started working on a women’s community development project, helping them with magazine and fashion projects.
When the chance arose to audition for a BBC presenter’s role, she went for it and got it, feeling at ease in front of a camera. She became the ‘roving reporter’ on Disability Today and then moved to From The Edge, on BBC Two, where the microlighting adventure came her way.
“Well, I always said I’d like to fly,” smiles Kim.
From presenting she moved into drama, securing a part on a Robson Green film, Blind Ambition, in which he played a blind athlete with his heart set on the Paralympics.
Then came Balamory.
“It was another audition and a long, drawn out process. Actually, it was three auditions. After the first one I thought they’d never ask me back because I had to sing. Everyone who knows me knows I’m phobic about singing. I just don’t.
“But they said, ‘Just do a nursery rhyme’, so I did and giggled all the way through it.”
It must have been a winning giggle.
What was brilliant about Balamory, says Kim, is that Penny hadn’t been considered as a disabled character. “They said they liked me and would work around me.
“If you look at the early episodes you’ll see that I sit quite still to deliver my lines. But I kept telling the directors that I could talk and move at the same time. When they got to grips with that I became a football coach and a running coach. It went from one extreme to the other!”
After Balamory, says Kim, she found it hard to find interesting drama roles. “I’ve had bits and pieces but they were usually the same kind of thing, just parts to explore a disability issue. I started getting really frustrated with that.”
Kim decided she needed to start creating interesting roles herself while also providing opportunities for other talented people living in the North East.
In 2011 she set up Scattered Pictures, a film and TV production company. Working with fellow director Paul Green, she has been building up a slate of work.
It is “a long and laborious process,” she says. “You get knocked back a lot of times and it is a fiercely competitive world where you get a hundred ‘Nos’ for every single ‘Yes’.
“But I love the challenge of that. The more people say ‘No’ to me the more determined I get. I’m used to people saying ‘No’ but that’s why it’s important to have several projects on the go at the same time.”
Currently Kim has high hopes of Yamas, a drama “with splashes of humour” centred on a Greek restaurant in Newcastle. There’s a nice part in it for Kim if it gets the green light and that ‘wheelie’ would be wonderful.
In the meantime, Millie Monroe is on a roll. Toys for Tomorrow, dedicated to Stella and Jay and “all children who feel a little bit different”, is out now and costs £6.99. Details on www.kittycatpublishing.com
(In Culture magazine, free with The Journal on Tuesday, Kim offers her selection of five favourite reads in the regular Reader’s Lives column)