The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, in a new version by Paul Farley

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Classic Serial on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 24 March 2013

Written in 1862-3 as a serial for Macmillan's Magazine, The Water Babies was written in part as a satire of Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species, as well as commenting on the iniquities of child labour.  Paul Farley updated the tale to 2023, with the protagonist Tomi (Damson Idris) portrayed as an immigrant from Nigeria.


In this version of the tale, Farley created a world rife with exploitation: Grimes (Kurt Egyiawan) is a ruthless enployer treating Tomi like a dog, even denying him the power to have a life of his own.  However what goes around comes around: Grimes is eventually put in a position where he is likely to be eaten and appeals to Tomi for help. Needless to say Tomi agrees to do so; he is not the kind of person to see anyone suffering, not even his once-powerful employer.  In a world dominated by capitalism, there are still possibilities for redemption, but people have to learn to think about others rather than themselves.


Once Tomi entered the underwater world, he quite literally had to get used to the law of the jungle; he remained perpetually in fear of his life as he encountered different life-forms.  Some of them treated him kindly; others merely saw him as a tasty morsel of food.  However Farley suggested that none of the creatures could escape their fate; to eat and be eaten was simply the law of nature.  However most human beings had wilfully upset the balance of nature through pollution:  bits of detritus as well as animal remains littered the sea-bed, putting the creatures' lives at risk.  Farley's adaptation called for people to become more environmentally friendly so as to preserve life on the planet.


However this task is easier said than done.  In a capitalist world where money talks, no one pays attention to anything except money.  The only way to resolve this tension is for individuals to learn self-awareness, which is precisely what Tommy and Ellie (Lauren Mote) acquire as they journey through the aquatic underworld.


In structural as well as aural terms, Emma Harding's production bore strong resemblances to Alice in Wonderland, with the two young protagonists encountering a gallery of eccentrics, including the Misses Whatgoesaroundcomesaround and Whatcomesaroundgoesaround (Julia Ford), a dragonfly (Hannah Wood), an otter (Jenny Ogilvie) and a lobster (Robert Blythe).  Many of the cast took two, perhaps three roles; partly this was for the sake of economy, but this strategy also served a thematic purpose, suggesting that the animals' characters could be paralleled with different aspects of human nature.


Radio is perhaps the ideal medium for this kind of tale, with sound effects creating an other-worldly atmosphere, setting the moral purpose of the story into sharper focus.  While Toni and Ellie emerged triumphant to face another day, we were left with the distinct impression that they had to retain their vigilance in order to ensure their own survival as well as the survival of those around them.


Tautly written and boldly directed, this was an extremely thought-provoking version of the Kingsley classic.