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.


Kiss My Art said…
Dear Todd

I listened to The Big Sleep yesterday (whilst watching the rugby with the sound turned down) and rather enjoyed it, although I admit it would have been much better with a genuine American in the lead role. There is no shortage of American voices on Radio 4 but when the part calls for a Yank, they perversely put up a Brit instead. I have always had a profound preference for American accents over Cockney and Estuary English ones.

Best wishes from Simon
Mark Granier said…
Agree with everything you say here Todd, though I only caught a few minutes of it, if that. Horribly amateurish, and played for cheap laughs. Pity. And BBC4 (my fave radio station) really should know better.
Anonymous said…
A very different view: There's lots to admire about The Big Sleep (Radio 4, Saturday), the first adaptation in a Classic Chandler season dramatising all Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels. But as you listen, one thing pretty much eclipses all else. It's not the detective plot, the noirish palette to everything, the enviably snappy dialogue, or terse brilliance of Chandler's prose. It's Toby Stephens (pictured) as Marlowe, and specifically his voice.
Stephens gets the voice so spot on – low, measured, etched by things unspoken, dark as night, taut and spare but intriguing – and his accent is so convincing, I did a comedy double-take at the discrepancy between listening to him in character and a promotional photograph of the actor in a nice, sensible scarf.
It's vital that the narrating voice is right, given that Stephens is Marlowe throughout the season, and on radio that voice has to carry even more than in the novel or film version. Beyond this, in sound only, there are few elements to embellish the words: recurrent teeming rain, some jazzy music that's perky or low-slung depending on the scene; the noise of traffic, footsteps, stoppers being pulled from bottles, and gun-shots. This was an impressive opener to the season, stylish and cool. "It was nice work," as Marlowe says as he fakes his death, "I liked it."

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