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The BBC's Big Sleep

I am a big fan of Raymond Chandler.  Like most readers, I discovered his Marlowe stories and novels in my teens, and read them all, quickly, with growing amazement and pleasure - that any writing so entertaining could be so stylish and literary.  Chandler has remained a favourite prose-writer for many poets, because he uses simile and metaphor so often, and so splendidly.  As well, he peppers his books with references to modernist poets, as well as allusions to the classics.  He's a great.

Chandler was, in a sense, the British-born link between literary modernism and post-war, American-led postmodernism, and his stock is always on the rise.  Therefore, the news that the BBC was planning a Philip Marlowe season of adaptations on Radio 4 was thrilling.  I tuned in today, preparing to be delighted for months.  Instead, my listening pleasure was deflated almost immediately.  The director of this series (starting with The Big Sleep) should be immediately sacked for being tone deaf.  The opening credits feature cheesy Jazz that confirms the cliche of Chandler - no chance of a rethink here, then.  Then we get the voice of Marlowe, in the shape of a British actor, Toby Stephens.  Stephens can't do a believable American accent, from the sounds of things.

Everything about his Marlowe is wrong - too young, too twangy (more like a Brooklyn guy than someone West Coast), too rough (he was college educated), and not sardonic or wry enough; it seems to have been derived without any awareness of the Bogart version or any other for that matter.  Indeed, the British claim to hold the monopoly on irony, but there is none in this production - the voice-over narration is flat as a pancake after a Canadian steamroller's been over it.

Rather than savouring his own self-aware cleverness - Marlowe takes succour from his hard-won wit, which is his armour - this version seems to take the stance at face value.  Marlowe is a genius, a great, subtle character.  He can't be played with the voice of a Columbo.  I am astonished that the BBC did not bother to consider an actual American for the part - despite The Wire, most British actors struggle with convincing American accents on stage I find.  Take a listen for yourself.  To me, it is unbearable,  But  General Sternwood was all wrong too.  If Orson Welles was the genius of radio drama, this Big Sleep is the utter abyss.  The BBC here displays its characteristic cultural arrogance - it assumes it can do no wrong, even by a classic.  A big waste.
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