A case of mine over matter

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The Independent Online
In the days when Hitchcock ambled across shot in his own films, the authorial cameo role was a discreet visual trinket of no discernible purpose. Recently, the in-joke has been acquiring sophistication and depth. In The People vs Larry Flynt, the porn magnate takes a small, vengeful part as his own nemesis, the judge who once sentenced him to 25 years in prison. In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby plays the coach of a school team hammered by a side run by his cinematic alter-ego: more than just an aside for the cognoscenti, it presents the author as the victim of his own runaway success.

Nostromo (BBC2, Sat) failed to break new ground in most areas, unless you count its record-breakingly meagre ratings, but it did manage it in this one. The mine owner shot at the start of episode one was played by the executive producer Michael Wearing: as the assassination set the whole ball rolling, this read like Wearing's pre-emptive admission of mea culpa. Scriptwriter John Hale played the British imperialist who built the railway line through Costaguana's impenetrable interior - a role not dissimilar to his off-screen task of ploughing a linear narrative through Conrad's unyielding epic.

Where the railway made it through intact, the novel containing it sustained irreparable damage in the course of its four-part journey. What with the superabundance of plot to wade through, a typical sequence would offer a string of pencil-thin scenes heavily freighted with narrative cargo. Too many were undernourished and overworked, so that at times it was like watching a chain gang of anorexics carrying their own weight in baggage on their backs up a mountain. There was simply no time for the story to be lateral, to roam free like Spice Girl Geri's unruly torso at the Brit Awards (ITV, Tues).

By the final episode you'd just about worked out which goaty foreigner was which, but the script never quite kicked the habit of helpfully explaining itself: to the bitter end, everyone was telling everyone else what they already knew, in the desperate, oddly obfuscating pursuit of clarity. "Dr Monygham, who is, as you know, a doctor..." "My husband Charles, to whom I am sure you will recall I am married..." The script wasn't quite that solicitous, but sometimes felt it. You might have found a perverse logic to the unstinting repetition of names, as the novel is about the original man with no name, a kind of proto-Clint whose real name has been replaced by the possessive epithet of the title. But you'd have to enjoy tying yourself in knots as much as Conrad plainly did.

Nostromo also compromised its integrity by imposing English dialogue on Italian- and Spanish-speaking actors even when their characters were chatting among themselves. There were some brief, illogical forays into the tongues of the countries where the co-production money came from, and these were like chinks giving on to a promised land of vocal fluency from which the rest of the film was nonsensically barred. The series went down well in Italy, no doubt partly because they hate subtitles far more than they hate dubbing, and could even take on board the tortuous novelty of Italian actors being dubbed into Italian. But British audiences are allergic to dubbing and, although spared that indignity, had to put up with some clunky post-synching of the non-English actors. Poor Claudio Amendola, as the eponymous fixer, was fatally emasculated by his sluggish pronunciation. If Colin Firth gave the most imposing and naturalistic performance, he would be the first to admit that he had a head start.

And however overweening its ambition, the production was undermined by the paucity of its copious crowd scenes. Here was one deficiency which could have been made good with a little capital outlay. They needed the sort of frenzied multitude brazenly bussed in to liven up The Brit Awards. You were reminded of Nostromo when the Bee Gees won their lifetime achievement gong and a clip showed them singing "New York Mining Disaster 1941". After its Rhodesian Mining Disaster 1996, also known as Rhodes, the BBC has now suffered a Colombian Mining Disaster 1997. Expect a drama about Arthur Scargill in about 12 months' time, in which, following the trend of the meaningful cameo, Scargill will make an appearance as the leader of the Coal Board.