Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner, adapted by Roy Apps

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BBC Radio 7, 17-18 December 2010

Erich Kstner’s story was one of the few to escape censorship by the Nazis; since its first publication in 1931 it has delighted children of all ages with its wish-fulfilling plot of how young Emil Tischbein (James Holland) visits Berlin for the first time to see his grandmother, is robbed of his money by conman Grndeis (Timothy Bateson), and recovers it with the help of a large gang of local boys, led by the Professor (Scott Riley) who at first shadow Grunwald and then corner him at the local bank.

Narrated by Roy Marsden as Kstner, Peter Fozzard‘s production focused on the idea of the innocent abroad: young Emil lacked the kind of self-awareness that might have taught him to be wary of people like Grndeis. In Bateson’s performance the conman came across as a trickster-type, full of honeyed words, yet basically out to fleece anyone and everyone of their money. Emil proved a particularly easy target, as he fell asleep in the train dreaming of what might await him once he arrived in Berlin. However the reality did not prove quite as intimidating as Emil had feared: Kstner encountered the little boy in the tram and paid his fare, expressing the hope as he did so that the two might meet once more. The boys relished the prospect of pursuing Grndeis, not because they were particularly concerned for Emil, but rather because they could act out their fantasies of becoming private detectives. As they concocted their elaborate plans, the sounds of saxophone could be heard in the background, recalling the old-style detective film noirs of the 1940s.

As the story unfolded, so Kastner’s voice as the narrator became more and more excited; he relished the prospect of an adult being outwitted by children in a world where youngsters were normally expected to be seen and not heard. Once Emil had recovered his money, and returned to his family, Kastner admitted that he had originally published the story as a newspaper article, and subsequently transformed it into a book. No one seemed particularly concerned; on the contrary, Emil’s mother (Elizabeth Kelly) seemed relieved that someone had taken such an interest in her son’s welfare.

The production painted a benevolent picture of early 1930s Berlin society – a world where right prevailed and whose citizens remained fundamentally decent in their behaviour towards one another. This might not have been an accurate picture, particularly during an era of economic hardship, but it was certainly a seductive one.