BBC Radio 4, 17 October 2009
Kastner's charming children's classic from 1931 tells of Emil (Joshua
Summers), a youngster living with his mother, who travels to Berlin by train to visit relatives. On the way he meets
Grundeis (Ewan Hooper) who befriends him, but ends up by stealing Emil's money. Apparently bereft of anything - friends,
finances, or knowledge of city customs - Emil has the good fortune to meet up with some local children, and together they
pursue Grundeis, eventually forcing him to confess his guilt to the police and hand the money back. Emil finally gets
to see his relatives, while his mother comes to join him in Berlin, presumably to live happily ever after.
Jessica Dromgoole's production treated the story as a rite-of-passage tale, as Emil
gradually acquired self-reliance through his Berlin adventures. He began the story as a provincial greenhorn ripe for
exploitation by the crafty Grundeis; by the end he had become someone who, although welcoming his mother's parental protection,
had acquired a knowledge of how to take care of himself. Dromgoole also showed how the children's pursuit of Grundeis game
them the chance to act out their imaginative fantasies. Having spend their formative years reading pulp novels, they understood
precisely the elements of detection: criminals could only be caught if everyone knew their specific roles in the campaign.
This might have seemed like a childish game to adults; for the children the pursuit became deadly serious - especially when
they cornered Grundeis in a bank and forced him to confess. The only child excluded from this game was Pony (Agnes Bateman)
who was expected to fulfil her appointed role as homemaker and comforter for those in need. Clearly the children's fantasies
did not prompt them to question established gender roles.
When Emil first arrived in Berlin, he had been caught short on a trolley-bus,
with no money for the fare; a kindly stranger intervened and paid on Emil's behalf. That stranger turned out to
be Kastner himself (Bruce Alexander). This narrative strategy not only rendered the story more immediate (it now seemed
like an autobiography rather than a work of fiction), but it showed how concerned Kastner was for his youthful protagonists. Despite
several reversals, none of them came to any harm.