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Brighton festival 2013 takes off, with Michael Rosen at helm


Programme for May's three-week arts celebration – released today – will feature Emil and the Detectives, Judith Kerr and Michael Rosen's orchestral work for kids, The Great Enormo

Emil and the Detectives– Erich Kästner's 1929 classic story about a boy who enlists the help of friends to foil a bank robber – is the book at the heart of this year's Brighton festival, which is guest-directed by author, broadcaster and former children's laureate Michael Rosen.

Rosen, who was read the book in weekly instalments by his class teacher when he was nine – and who remembers elaborating and acting out episodes of it with his friends – said the book was "very special in a variety of ways. It was the first of its kind: the first book in which children are detectives and solve a crime. And it was completely new in its attitude to the city. There's a tradition in literature of cities being described as dens of iniquity. Very few cities, when Kästner was writing, were celebrated for their vivacity, but this is what he did."

The work had a huge influence, he said, on writing for children from Enid Blyton to Charlie Higson; its celebration of the sounds and textures of urban life make it a truly modernist tale.

The centre of the celebrations of Emil and the Detectives (an adaptation of which, coincidentally, will be this winter's Christmas show at the National Theatre) will be a schools event with Rosen at Theatre Royal Brighton. But the festival, which runs from 4 to 26 May, will also explore Emil's world in other ways: Kästner was also an adult novelist, a poet, a pacifist, an author of cabaret songs – and a critic of the Nazi regime, whose books were burned. The entire 15-and-a-half hours of Fassbinder's classic TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz will be screened, and an evening of Brecht and Weill songs, performed by Nina Hagen, David McAlmont, and Jamie McDermott and his band the Irrepressibles will summon up the sounds of the Weimar Republic's counterculture.

Rosen will also host an appearance by Judith Kerr, the author of the famous children's war story When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, her semi-autobiographical tale about the rise of Hitler. "She is a living link with the Weimar Republic," said Rosen of the 89-year-old writer.

By coincidence, Billy Wilder's 1931 screen adaptation of Emil and the Detectives was Benjamin Britten's favourite film, and in the composer's centenary year Brighton festival presents a version of his Canticles with singers including tenor Ian Bostridge, staged by Brighton-based director Neil Bartlett with lighting designer Paule Constable and the war artist John Keane.

Other theatrical highlights of the festival, for which the Guardian is media partner, include the UK premiere of a new work devised by acclaimed Argentinian writer and director Lola Arias, bringing her work to Britain for the first time. My Life After draws on the memories and family lives of a group of actors brought up in the 1970s and 80s – some whose families were associated with the military, and some whose parents suffered under the junta.

Rosen will also co-create The Great Enormo: A Kerfuffle in B Flat for Orchestra, Wasps and Soprano – a children's guide to the orchestra. "Orchestral music has tried to invent ways of introducing children to the orchestra," he said. We all know about Peter and the Wolf and The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. There's been a bit of a gap in recent years in finding ways to do it." His version will narrate the tale of Mr Enormo Biggins, as he attempts to find a theme tune to go with his new time-travel theme park.

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