Firth rides back as Conrad replaces Austen

Ivan Waterman on the off-screen saga of love, greed and stormy weather that produced 'Nostromo', to be broadcast this autumn

Lsat year it was Jane Austen. This year it will be Joseph Conrad. The next classic English novelist to enjoy a surge in popularity thanks to small-screen and large-screen adaptations is likely to be the mariner who grew up speaking Polish, yet became one of the greatest masters of English prose.

The BBC is planning to spearhead its autumn TV drama season with Nostromo, Conrad's 1904 story of a South American country in the grip of revolution, and its silver mine run by a young Englishman. Lavishly filmed with a pounds 12m budget, it is the biggest European coproduction of a television film ever made (by Britain, Italy and Spain), but size and showiness will not be the major draw for half its audience.

Women viewers will be able to cast eyes on Mr Darcy once again. Just a year after he induced a nationwide swooning epidemic as Jane Austen's proud but eventually tamed hero of Pride and Prejudice, Colin Firth will be back as Charles Gould, owner of the Sao Tome silver mine in the imagined and turbulent country of Costaguana. Other stellar names cluster around him: Albert Finney tops the bill as the enigmatic Dr Monyghan, a lonely figure tortured under a previous regime, the Italian actor Claudio Amendola plays the hero Jean Baptista Fidanza, known as Nostromo, and Serena Scott Thomas plays Colin Firth's bride Emilia.

Nostromo is not the only Conrad tale - the word he would have used - to have been filmed and be awaiting release. At the cinema, audiences will soon see a new and lavish version of his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, with Bob Hoskins creeping around trying to blow up the Greenwich Observatory.

Yet earlier attempts to bring Conrad to the screen have been failures. They include a television version of The Secret Agent featuring the actor David Suchet, which failed to make any critical impression, and Nicolas Roeg's cable-TV interpretation last year of Heart of Darkness (successfully transferred to Vietnam by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now) which received lukewarm reviews.

In 1965, Peter O'Toole and James Mason sank without trace in a film adaptation of his story of cowardice and making amends, Lord Jim, leaving a hugedent in the finances of Columbia Films.

Nostromo itself has been a long time coming as a film. David Lean tried to get it off the ground and failed; his friend Robert Bolt worked on a script but did not live to see it shot.

And the BBC's four-part mini-series, which will be premiered at the Prix Italia television festival in Naples next month, stumbled over a mass of problems on location in Colombia before making it into the can. It was pushed along by the corporation's Head of Drama Serials, Michael Wearing (the man in charge of Pride and Prejudice) as executive producer - and the Italian producer Fernando Ghia, who made The Mission with David Puttnam.

Production, in the suburbs of the city of Cartagena, ran into trouble almost immediately. Local people demanded work on an "or else" basis. Albert Finney's horse bolted into the jungle with him astride it. The removal of a telegraph pole for filming led to a cull of trees in the local botanical garden by an over-enthusiastic sub-contractor. ("I never really got to the bottom of that one," says a grinning Wearing). A boat lent by the Colombian navy ran aground. For weeks, cans of film sat in a storeroom, failing to make it back to the laboratories in Rome, because of a dispute over cargo rights between the Colombian and Venezuelan airlines. Temperatures hovered around 100F and the humidity became unbearable. Bugs assailed Ms Scott Thomas causing her to suffer from nausea and presenting huge make-up problems. Rainstorms washed away part of the sets. Equipment went missing.

Then, just two weeks before filming was scheduled to finish, the director Alastair Reid, who made Traffik, collapsed through exhaustion, and was "rested" for five days.

Wearing took over. The piece de resistance for the 60-strong crew and local craftsmen - some 400 were employed - was the construction of a 100- metre jetty and custom houses overlooking the ocean, complete with a working wooden steam engine, wagons and track. Taking four months and pounds 100,000 worth of wood to erect, the masterpiece was to remain intact as a monument to the film and a tourist attraction. The landmark was also to be shown to Fidel Castro, star guest at a Third World conference to be held in the city. Within 14 hours of filming ending, however, the set had been dismantled by local people.

"It just disappeared," said Wearing. "They wanted the wood. They hated the town council. These were people who had no running water or electricity. But it was a shame. Somebody could have done something with that businesswise."

Fernando Ghia referred to the difficulties as "tropical variations". He employed 15, 000 locals in crowd scenes during the shoot and had to deal with constant mutiny among the Italian crew; he is convinced that they have achieved the impossible.

"The Americans would have spent $75m (pounds 50m) on making Nostromo and then would have only been able to make a small segment of it, probably shooting in Spain for security reasons," he said.

"With television we can do it justice. This has been my dream. My passion. Sir Robert Bolt gave me the idea a long time ago and now we have it. There were many rows, but there were also light moments."

Indeed. The cast were frequently to be found at the local noisy nightspot Mr Barbilla's, where Colin Firth, fresh from his success in Pride and Prejudice, and his widely reported affair with his co-star as Eliza Bennett, Jennifer Ehle, fell in love once again with Mr Ghia's personal assistant, Livia Giuggioli, a student from Rome.

Last month at the Bafta awards, Ms Giuggioli was to be seen on Mr Firth's arm, and on Ms Giuggioli's finger was a large ring. The womanhood of Britain may swoon again this autumn, watching Conrad's tale, and may dream; alas, it may all be in vain.

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