Erich Kästner’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 Gründeis (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 Kästner, 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 Gründeis. 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: Kästner 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 Gründeis, 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.