On the radio: The Big Sleep (Radio 4)

The booze-soaked mean streets of hard-boiled Los Angeles came to the leafy metropolitana of Radio 4 on the weekend. The beeb have dramatised all of Raymond Chandler’s novels and put Toby Stephens in the Marlowe role. Booze-soaked, bitter and battling off the broads, how did he – and they – do?

This isn’t the first radio Big Sleep I’ve heard. BBC 7 have put at least one other version on before now although a quick google hasn’t been able to locate who the Marlowe was or whether that was a US or UK production. There was a bit of fanfare about this production – part of a whole Classic Chandler season no less – and it’s the first in a series that will take in other classics like Lady in the Lake, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye. They’ve even turned Playback into a Marlowe story and will run the completed Poodle Springs. I should be excited. I love Marlowe. I can recite whole lines from the films. Hell, I can even pretend to be Dick Powell by pulling a bulldog face and putting on a hat. But after listening to this opener I’m not. There are issues.

But let’s get the positives out of the way. Toby Stephens was good. His drawl sounded right and his exasperation at the seediness of the world was on the money. The Sternwood girls and the cast of hangers-on, cops, rare men of honour and deadbeats got the pitch exactly right – to my ear at least. So why aren’t I dancing in the aisles – or at least pouring myself a satisfied shot of rye?

Well, the problem is the same as for that other production I’ve heard. This is like a pale retread of those films noir. The voiceover in the films adds to the weariness – we can see the marble hallways and Marlowe’s wit about it all shows us where he stands. On the radio the voiceover is a tired trope that gets the writer and sound crew out of having to do anything. Marlowe tells us what the room is like because we can’t actually see it. It’s a bit dull in comparison. And there are few sounds to give us that atmosphere of sex, drugs and tiredness that the books and films evoke with ease. A click of a door, the glug of a bottle – not much else. I know this is an indoor, behind closed doors world but something needs to step in to replace the busted neon and nothing does.

And the plots. One can be too faithful. The Big Sleep as anyone who has read it can testify – Chandler included – makes no sense. People come, people go, people die or don’t and people run away. Marlowe walks through it all. The most successful adaptation of Chandler – Farewell My Lovely/Murder My Sweet in the Dick Powell film version – changes the plot wholesale but keeps the mood, adds some lines of its own and has some fun with that noir world. This didn’t seem to have the fun and it didn’t seem to have given itself enough licence to play with the plot. And at 90 minutes – about the length of the films – it was a bit drawn. It felt like there was a raw punchy 60 minute adaptation lurking on the fringes but what we got was a strangely bloodless hour and a half.

Maybe I’m too down on it. Maybe I have in mind something that can’t be created. A proper noir soundscape in which a radio-specific Marlowe roams. A world of two-bit heels and unspeakably sexy femmes fatale in a uniquely radiophonic world, not merely a Radio 4 representation of some classic films to pass the time on a weekend afternoon. After all, like I said, the acting was excellent and hearing the bitter quips of that lone honest man is always a pleasure.

And I will be tuning in next week.

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