Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken, dramatized by Lin Coghlan

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BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play website

BBC Radio 4, 21-22 December 2011
Lin Coghlan's dramatization of Joan Aiken's classic children's tale operated on two levels. It was first and foremost a fantasy, set in a Never-Never Land of the mid-eighteenth century where King James III was on the throne, and the Hanoverians were trying to replace him with Bonnie Prince Georgie. Some characters' names had a distinctly twentieth century feel to them (for example Justin, Lord Bakerloo (Sam Pamphilon)), while others were used for comic effect (the oleaginous servant Jabwing (Piers Wehner)). The fantasy element of the story was reinforced through the plot, which was chock-full of unlikely coincidences and chance meetings: both Justin the hero Simon (Joe Dempsie) discovered their true parentage; while Simon discovered that Sophie (Emerald O'Hanrahan) was actually his sister.
Director Marc Beeby emphasized the fantastic elements of the story through sound-effects. Every sequence was linked with one or two staccato chords played on tubular bells, suggesting rapid transformations (almost as if wizard or witch had placed a spell on the characters). In the climactic sequence at the end of Part II, where the conspirators led by Bakerloo's tutor Buckle (Nigel Hastings) are defeated by the forces of good (including a group of students) Beeby created a surreal battle-scene, as the protagonists struggled to make themselves heard above the sound of rapid explosions, and the relentless hiss of a balloon landing, bringing the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester (John Rowe, Sheila Reid) to the royal palace.
At another level, however, Coghlan's dramatization was rooted in the real world of deprivation, suffering, and class consciousness. All four youngsters - Simon, Sophie, Lord Bakerloo, and Dido (Nicola Miles-Wildin) - never knew what it was like to grow up in a happy family environment. Simon and Sophie had been brought up in an orphanage, Lord Bakerloo had been adopted by the Gloucesters, while Dido was treated like a servant by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Twite (Rhys Jennings, Tessa Nicholson). No one looked after Dido when she was sick; her parents expected her to wait on them hand and foot. When Simon went to work at the Gloucesters' house, Buckle regarded him as little more than a street-urchin, to be disposed of as soon as possible. The tutor had his chance later on, when he had the boy hit over the head, bundled into a sack and cast out in a boat to fend for himself.
In such a brutal world, the youngsters found that companionship was the best means of survival: Simon looked after Dido during her illness, while Dido reciprocated later on when she turned up in the boat to help him survive. Sophie and Simon had a fraternal bond, even when they did not know that they were related. When Bakerloo discovered his true parentage (he was actually Buckle's son) he cast aside his social airs and graces and became Simon's constant companion.
Coghlan's adaptation ended with the youngsters bringing about a happy ending, with everyone - except Buckle and his gang - participating in a Christmas celebration. Dido read the credits out and wished all listeners a Merry Christmas. Combining humour, fantasy and a fair degree of acute social criticism, this version of Aiken's classic novel proved riveting listening.