It might seem a long way for a disabled woman from the streets of Gateshead to the idyllic and idealistic world of children’s TV’s Balamory. But it’s a journey, says Ian Macrae, on which Kim Tserkezie seems to have remained constantly cheery.
There is something effortlessly and practically easy-going about Kim Tserkezie’s approach to life. And yet she spends a good proportion of each day solving or circumventing a string of the sorts of frustrating problems which a disabling world throws at someone like her.
For instance, we’ve arranged to meet in a modern west London shopping centre. You might think her real problem would be getting there from her home in Newcastle upon Tyne. But no, she already knows that the real hassle will be having to take three different lifts, all some distance from each other to go up just one level.
“It’s always frustrating,” she tells me, though I’ve already noticed that a laugh isn’t ever far from the surface.
“Year after year you hardly see any improvements. And still now, I get really frustrated with having to go in side entrances. And when you see new shops and they’ve still not thought it through…”
But in general, and in typical fashion, she sees shopping as an opportunity to be grabbed when it arises.
“It feels like such a treat, especially now that I have two children. Finding the time to do it makes it feel like the most luxurious thing. You get an hour to yourself where you can shop or window shop or buy yourself something indulgent rather than going for the next lot of replacement family toiletries.”
And as we begin to look back at her Tyneside childhood, it’s clear that Kim has always been keen to take her simple pleasures where she finds them.
But first that name, Tserkezie. “My name is Greek”, she enlightens me.
“My Dad’s Greek. In fact there’s Greek on both sides of my family. My maternal Grandma was Greek as well, so there’s quite a bit of Greek to me.”
But her accent is unmistakably and pretty much unmodulated Geordie.
“I see myself as a Geordie Greek. Though I think as I get older, I realize that there’s more Greek in me than I ever understood as a child. I realize how that culture has been instilled in me.”
And what does that mean about how she is?
“One of the things that means is that I have to feed people all the time. So you can’t come to my house without having to have at least one chocolate biscuit. Or else it ruins my day.
“It also means a real family bond, a real sense of family. And that’s something which, with my own family now is very important.”
Those sorts of elements are also often seen as being very big in Geordie culture too.
“Definitely”, Kim agrees. “I think it’s a nice mix. They’re both very sociable cultures. The Geordie culture’s all about people, so I like to think I’m a people person”.
She grew up through the mid/late 70s and early 80s, a time when, both then and now, the North East would be generally perceived as a depressed and depressing place to be.
“It certainly didn’t feel a depressed place for me growing up,” says Kim.
“I’m from a really working class area in Gateshead. My Dad worked in a factory and my Mam was at home supporting us.
“I just remember the highlight of the day was going to the launderette. It was just great. You’d get a packet of sweets and you’d sit and watch the machines going round. And the smells. Everything was so exciting.”
Don’t run away with the idea that this simple nostalgic joy indicates that Kim’s horizons were limited. It’s about taking as much as she can from what every situation has to offer.
“I just have lots of lovely memories. We didn’t have much, but what we did have was always enjoyed. We made the most of everything, even if it was just a trip to the launderette.” And she laughs.
Clearly, a disabled child like Kim, living in and as part of her community would inevitably be aware that she was different. But, she says, “My family never made me feel that that was a negative thing”.
Indeed, it was her family which fought hard for her to have what would today be called an “Inclusive” education.
Once again we find her content with where she was while remaining aware of things that were different.
“At the time it felt like that was where I should be. It felt like that was where I belonged. But I was always aware that people were trying to include me, that things were different. Whether that was in a PE lesson or because I was carried up a flight of stairs at school. Things had to happen that were very obvious, so you always stood out from the crowd whether you wanted to or not.”
Maybe it was the fact that she’d got used to standing out from the crowd that made Kim audition for a presenter’s job on Disability Today.
This was a new disability programme made for the BBC’s education department in the days before disabled people and our issues were considered proper content for prime time, which is why the show went out in the middle of the night. But, says Kim, it provided a really useful training ground.
“I was kind of thrown in at the deep end with that show. I remember being asked, ‘Can we have the treatment for your piece by the end of next week?’ I didn’t even know what a treatment was.”
Kim was the show’s “roving reporter!” with Peter White as the studio based anchor.
But the break came at an interesting time for Kim. Not only was she a new mum – her son Jay was ten months old – she was also having to operate as a single parent.
But single parenthood as a disabled woman presented bigger challenges than those relating to organising her life and childcare.
“It was seen to be irresponsible of me to have had him. People always wanted to know what the chances were of him having my impairment. There was no clucking and ‘Ga-ga-ga’ over my little boy. It was, ‘Oh, is he going to be like you?’
“I’d be out and about with my PA and people would assume he was their child not mine.”
Kim went on to do a stint as one of the presenters on From the Edge BBC 2’s prime time disability magazine show before making the move from fact to fiction.
First came a part in ITV drama Blind Ambition playing opposite Robson Green.
“Yes,” she says ruefully, “it was a bit of a dodgy one that one. We’ll just skip over that. But it was an opportunity.”
Her really big break though came in the unusual form of children’s TV. Balamory is a little seaside village (actually Tobermory on the Isle of Mull) where all the characters live in houses of different colours and dress accordingly. Kim says: “Ultimately it’s the kind of little ideal world where everybody supports, shares and helps each other. The kind of world where everybody has a place and a role.”
As Penny Pocket, who, with Suzie Sweet keeps the village shop and café, Kim was required, for the first time professionally to sing.
“You’re talking to someone who’s never been on a karaoke in my life. I was phobic, literally phobic about singing.”
But not even that terror could rob the experience of pleasure for Kim.
“It was a huge amount of fun. And if you can’t have fun on a children’s TV show, where can you.”
Kim has now set up her own production company, Scattered Pictures where, with two other writers she’s working up a slate of drama projects for television.
On her own account she’s about to have published a series of children’s books with the title, The Wheelie Wonderful Life of Millie Monroe.
“It’s about an eight-year-old wheelchair-user, her little life and her little community, based on a little bit of my experience. I’m hoping it’ll be something that children find fun and enjoy”.
Well, if the books are anything like their author, you can bet they’ll hit the spot.