BBC Radio 7, 15-17 April 2009
Another picaresque adventure from the Victorian period involving Tom, a chimney-sweep's boy (Oliver Peace) working for his sadistic master Grimes (Philip Jackson), a mysterious Irish woman (Julia McKenzie) and a paternal narrator (Timothy West).
Basically the story resembles John Milton's Paradise Lost: Tom escapes from a manor house and falls into a pool, where he is transformed into a water baby. However he cannot play the role successfully until he has acquired humility and altruism, and confronted his worst fears (confronting Grimes once again) so as to overcome them. He is aided in his struggles by Mrs. DoAsYouWouldBeDoneBy and her sister DoAsYouOnceDid (both played by McKenzie), who offer him rewards when he does well, and reprimand him for his misdemeanours. Throughout the narrative Kingsley guides the listener's responses, rather like a favourite uncle, as he comments on Tom's shortcomings while insisting on the boy's basically virtuous nature. Eventually Tom emerges triumphant, but receives no other reward other than the recognition that he has become a 'true' man - reliable, respectful and brave.
Berlie Doherty's adaptation emphasized the importance of Kingsley/the Narrator as someone not only telling the story but guiding the listeners. The Water Babies became a Victorian parenting manual, emphasizing the fact that adults have to respond in different ways to different situations so as to ensure that their offpsring will be properly brought up. McKenzie played four roles - the two sisters, the Irish wiman and Mother Carey; this was a deliberate decision on director Janet Whittaker's part, showing once again how an ideal parent should be chameleon-like, playing different roles whenever the occasion arises.
The novel's picaresque structure was underlined through a sequence of short scenes, linked by the narrator's comments. Through his encounters with various sea-beasts, Tom learned what it meant to be a man. This was perhaps the most important aspect of Kingsley's work; by comparison Ellie (Keira Janson) - Tom's faithful companion - acts as a symbol of virtue but never acquires the pro-active dominant nature characteristic of the Victorian male. All she can do is to be there for him, rather like the faithful partner waiting for her husband.