Meet the Mixmups: the new kid’s TV show creating magic with its representation of disability

Disillusioned at how disability looked in TV and toys, Rebecca Atkinson mixed up a new show that adds sparkle to lived experience

What are the ingredients for a great children's TV show? Many parents and carers have tried to work it out, often in a sleep-deprived state on their sofa at 6am. It’s a deceptively difficult question if you’re over about five. There’s an overwhelm of options that could go in the mix. Between Teletubbies’ custard-obsessed toddler aliens and Hey Duggee’s Squirrel Club, in this packed world of endless talking animals, eye-wobblingly bright colours and once-heard-never-forgotten songs, the building blocks for brilliant kids’ TV should be limitless.

But for writer Rebecca Atkinson, having worked in TV for nearly 30 years, something huge was missing from this seemingly happy landscape — good representations of disability. It set her on a seven-year journey to cook up a new brand for children that showed disability as a natural part of life. The result is Mixmups, a new stop-motion animation for three-to-five-year-olds that’s just debuted on Channel 5’s Milkshake! 

Disability in Children's TV: the facts

The facts are as clear as a sunny day in Teletubbyland. According to the TV industry diversity report from 2021-22, disabled on-screen representation in Children’s programmes is at 10.5%, miles under the UK population figure of 18% of people who identify as disabled. Perhaps unsurprisingly, off-screen representation in children’s TV production roles is even worse, making up just 6.6% of those employed.

When it comes to children’s TV, disability is either misrepresented or, more often, left out altogether. Representation matters in every area. But for children’s media, it’s critical. Bias can start as early as children begin to form their first impressions of life. Stereotypical or missing representation not only gives negative attitudes to non-disabled kids but can also impact the self-esteem and self-image of children who identify as disabled and are consuming the content or wondering why no one looks like them on screen.

Let’s not forget how memorable your childhood TV era was. It stays with you for life, forming your impressions of the world before you’ve had a chance to see very much of it. For disabled children, who can face isolation at home and have been shown to watch more television as a result, the effects can be even more powerful. 

That’s not to say there hasn’t been some progress in Children’s TV. It has more representation of disability than any other TV genre. The introduction of characters like the wheelchair-using Mandy Mouse in Peppa Pig have been welcome additions and moved past disabled characters being token one-off appearances, seen as ill, or as baddies, a trope as old as fairy tales. 

Meet the Mixmups

Inspired by every child’s love of mixing things together when they play, Mixmups is also looking to tip up the Children’s TV toy box, and stir things up to create something different. It’s the first children’s TV series to feature disabled lead characters and be made by a team with lived experience of disability.  It also has the first rolling-skating guinea pig assistance pet, Roller Guinea. Charmingly quirky evidence that this is no box-ticking exercise in representation but the first preschool show to show disability as it should be shown, as a natural part of life, in a universally appealing world of imagination, play and flexible thinking. 

Produced with acclaimed Children’s TV animation studio Mackinnon and Saunders, Mixmups’ 52 ten-minute episodes centre on three friends: neat and tidy Pockets, creative and inventive Giggle and boisterous and physical Spin. They live with Roller Guinea and their guide dog, Yapette, in a wheelchair-accessible Helter-Skelter house in Mixington Valley, undoubtedly one of the most accessible environments seen on screen. Their home not only has a lift, automatic doors and wheelchair-accessible swings, but the whole world magically adjusts to meet the accessibility needs of the three characters. 

Pockets is partially sighted, Spin non-disabled, and Giggle is a wheelchair user. As we know at Whizz Kidz, it starts with the right chair. Giggle uses a manual chair, an all-terrain model and even accesses an electric tri-ride add-on. All are perfectly designed to fit Giggle’s unique body shape, showing some spine curvature. Whizz Kidz’s occupational therapists and engineers would be proud. Young wheelchair users and others with lived experience were called on as consultants to make sure the everyday details of disability were shown. So, Giggle is shown transferring in and out of their chair, and Pockets sometimes uses a cane instead of Yapette.

In each episode, the friends cook up an idea for a playful adventure, like heading to the Moon for a cheese sandwich, accompanied by trunk-beaked guardian Lucky Loover Bird. They place toys and objects in their magical mixing box and, using their wooden spoon, “Mix up the Magic” and get whirled into the box to start their journey through play and imagination.

Creator Rebecca Atkinson knows all about mixing things up, as she’s also the founder (with play consultant Karen Newell) of ToyLikeMe, a not-for-profit campaigning for more diversity and inclusion in the toy industry. Having worked in TV for decades, Rebecca was equally frustrated by the lack of representation on screen for children. Mixmups, she told the BBC, was her chance to "create a children's brand that does disability in the way I think it should be done”.

That means using children’s innate love of play and limitless sense of wonder to shape a show that includes everyone. After her seven-year struggle to get it made, we caught up with Rebecca to ask more about how she’s crafted this accessible landmark in children’s TV with help from young wheelchair users and the real-life inspiration for Roller Guinea.

Rebecca Atkinson portrait photograph.

Play is in us all. It’s just expressed differently depending on who we are and what body we are in. 

Rebecca Atkinson, Creator of Mixmups

How Rebecca mixed up a new kid's brand

Can you remember how you first came up with the idea for Mixmups?

I still have the very first picture of the Mixmups I ever drew. I was awake late at night, and the name Mixmups came to me out of the blue, and I scribbled down some pictures of animals with human faces and a wooden spoon on an old envelope. 

It’s taken seven years to bring Mixmups to TV.  What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome to get it made?

Children’s TV is a difficult business. Getting a channel to commission an idea is like winning the lottery. I am forever grateful to Milkshake! and Channel 5 for believing in the Mixmups. Once you get a commission, you then have to raise the finance to actually make the show. It’s a lot more complex than people might realise. Mixmups was very lucky to receive funding from the BFI Young Audience Content Fund. 

What have been the highlights of making Mixmups?

Working with Mackinnon and Saunders has been an absolute dream. I have always admired their work. They have made puppets for so many amazing children’s TV shows, from Bob the Builder, Postman Pat, the Clangers and Fantastic Mr Fox, so to work with them to bring Mixmups to life is a huge honour. 

Could you tell us more about how you worked with young wheelchair users when developing the show?

When I started developing Mixmups, I held a focus group with young wheelchair users, and three of these young people continued to feed into the process for several years. I would talk to them about what their dream fantasy world might look like – with bright, playful buildings, all of which are wheelchair accessible. I spoke to them about the design for Giggle’s wheelchair, the buildings, and even the animation style. They were incredible and put up with a lot of questions from me! 

Are there any moments or details in the animation that young wheelchair users and their families will recognise when watching?

The character of Giggle’s movements is based on the range of movements of just one child consultant because every wheelchair user’s body is different and moves differently. We looked at this one child, what his body could and couldn’t do and then emulated that for Giggle. He kindly allowed me to film him using his wheelchair, doing various manoeuvres, transferring and walking short distances, which the animation team used as a reference. 

Who wants to play Mixmups?

How do you want Mixmups to represent disability to its audience? 

I think, as a disabled person myself, I just wanted to create a playful show which would entertain and excite young children. I wanted to convey the universal nature of play and then build in authentic disability representation to enrich the show further. 

Could you tell us how play theory influenced Mixmups?

Play theory is the academic study of how children play. It looks at particular play patterns children undertake as they grow up – from building with bricks or playing with wheels, posting shapes or tracking movement or responding to sound. All children love to play and explore the world around them, but every child is different and plays in their own ways to meet their own milestones. Play is in us all. It’s just expressed differently depending on who we are and what body we are in. 

The Lucky Loover Bird tells the Mixmups that “there’s always another way”. How important was it for you to get this message in the show?

This is a metaphor both for general problem-solving in life and for disabled living. As a disabled person myself, I know that part of living that life is about finding other ways to do things, navigating barriers and being an expert problem solver. 

Can you tell us more about how accessible Mixington Valley is? And the idea of magical access? 

I wanted the world of Mixmups to be constructed with the social model of disability at its heart. This is the idea that the world needs to be accessible, rather than the child needing to be fixed. I wanted to create a world which was fixed – which was accessible for the characters who inhabited it. I wanted the world to bend and flex for them, rather than disabled children taking it upon themselves to try and change. So, for example, if Giggle can’t reach the top of the Christmas tree to put the star on, the tree will bend for the child. That’s the beauty of imaginary worlds – anything is possible! 

How did your experience of watching TV as a child and then later as a parent influence Mixmups? 

I grew up with hearing aids in the 1980s. I literally never saw anyone with any disabilities on TV apart from in charity adverts. This has a real impact on the growing sense of self for a child.  

What should we know about Giggle, the wheelchair-using character in Mixmups?

Giggle has a manual wheelchair, but she also has an all-terrain wheelchair and an electric tri-ride attachment. If she visits the beach or a forest, for example, you will see her wheelchair change into an all-terrain chair, magical access style! The children I consulted wanted to see Giggle have a body which showed her physical disability, so I worked with the puppet makers to give her a curvature of the spine, tilted hips and one leg longer than the other – this gives her a really authentic gait. Roller Guinea is Giggle’s very own assistance pet – she was designed by my daughter, who at the time was seven years old, and we had recently got two guinea pigs. She came up with the idea of putting roller skates on a guinea pig and I was sold immediately! 

Dream castles and lunar sandwiches

What are the most memorable Mixmups moments we should look out for that you particularly love?

The Mixmups episodes are all unique, funny and different. There are a few episodes which touch on disability on the nose, but most don’t. I wanted to write stories about all sorts of play adventures and not just always focus on disability. One of my favourites is the Hurry Up Sandwich, about visiting a cheese snack shack on the moon. I think a lot of kids and families will relate to that one. Castle Hunt is another favourite, as it introduces children to accessible buildings as the Mixmups look for a dream castle to play in. 

Mixmups is all about imagination, creativity and fun. But are there any episodes that you’re particularly proud of in terms of tackling issues of accessibility and inclusion? 

Castle Hunt is a great intro to wheelchair-accessible buildings, and All Things Pockets is a lovely episode exploring the different ways to see through the eyes of Pockets, who is partially sighted – although we haven’t yet shot that one! 

How have you seen the representation of disability change over the seven years since you started work on Mixmups? And what still needs to be tackled?

I think children’s industries have changed hugely in the eight years since I started the Toy Like Me campaign in 2015 to call on the global toy industry to better represent 150 million disabled children worldwide. Today, you can get Barbie with wheelchairs, hearing aids and prosthetic limbs, and there are many other toy brands bringing out disabled characters. Still, Mixmups stands out as the only disabled-led children’s brand, and I think that level of authenticity and genuine understanding in the brand really shows. We have an unprecedented attention to detail and lived experience. 

What do you hope young viewers, disabled and non-disabled, take away from Mixmups?

I hope they are entertained and compelled to pick up a wooden spoon and ‘Mix up the Magic’ of play and imagination. Mixmups is a brand for everyone because we all love to play! 

Did you have to fight battles about how disability was represented when developing Mixmups?

I had to study not just how the characters would look on screen but also how I wrote the stories. I wanted to reposition the way we tell stories with disabled characters. I wanted to write stories about anything and everything, not just disability, and find universal themes full of fun, play, humour and warmth. 

Getting around barriers: advice for young wheelchair users

How did the production team’s lived experience of disability influence Mixmups?

I think it just gave everyone an understanding of doing things ‘another way’. They knew what barrier-navigating life is all about. 

You’re also a founder of Toy Like Me. What would your dream range of Mixmups toys be?

I would love to see an inventive, five-sense toy brand – which has smells, textures, sounds and strong, vibrant visual colours, and loads and loads of opportunities to play! 

Where would you like to take Mixmups next?

We are still working on the current series, as there are 52 episodes to write, animate and produce, so I will have to finish that first and then have a long snooze before working out what will happen next! 

What would you say to young wheelchair users about how they see disability represented on TV and in toys?

Know that the world needs to change, not you. There will always be and have always been, disabled children. That is not going to change, it’s part of human life, but we can change the world around us to be more accessible and inclusive. 

Any advice for young wheelchair users who want to make their animated TV series or work in TV when they are older?

Believe you can.  I very much hope that for disabled creatives of the future, Mixmups will have taken down a few barriers in their path. 

Catch Mixmups every Saturday and Sunday at 8:15am on Channel 5’s Milkshake! and streaming on My5.