On the fiddle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 January, 1994, 12:00am

PROGRAMMERS have some sort of collective brainstorm at the weekends, fiddling, as it were, while we burn out our channel-changers looking for something to watch. Of course we could talk to our wives and families, but this is a television column and I am not about to dedicate 36 valuable centimetres to a lecture on the decline of social intercourse. This is the Year of the Family in Hong Kong, so I will leave that kind of thing to the Social Welfare Department.

Cheers (Pearl, 9.00pm) is always there, a well-chewed but dependable pacifier. Otherwise Quo Vadis? (World, 9.30pm) is the best bet for those of you who refuse to be removed from your favourite armchair. Peter Ustinov, now Sir Peter, is Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, better known as Nero, the Roman emperor convicted by history of the burning of Rome. He is said to have been a bit of a monster, but the opposite was true. When asked to sign his first death warrant he burst into tears. But this is Hollywood, where real emperors don't cry.

Ustinov does some valiant fiddling of his own, (something else Nero didn't really do), but the film belongs to Roman soldier Robert Taylor, who has to figure out how to romance Christian Deborah Kerr without both of them ending up as lunch for the lions.

ONE of a glut of movies to grace, if that is the word, the big screen for the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World in 1992 was 1492: Conquest of Paradise (Pearl, 9.30pm). It is a film in which Gerard Depardieu and Sigourney Weaver, both of whom should have known better, make a complete embarrassment of themselves.

Depardieu sinks like a stone as the world's greatest mariner. He battles his way through this plodding morass of mutinous sailors and revolting natives (in the ''excuse me senor, but the natives are revolting'' sense) with his French accent as unchallenged as his undoubted acting ability. Weaver meanwhile looks stunningly self-conscious as the Queen of Spain. She is there as a foil for Depardieu, who needs her permission to press-gang a few peasants and put to sea. At one point her mouth appears to twitchwith a flicker of Latin emotion, but otherwise she is about as Spanish as a plate of fish and chips and as multi-faceted as a wet day in Benidorm. Whatever happened to characters? Strangely enough, director Ridley Scott, who as we all know made a far better job of Alien, chose not to deal with the New World in Conquest of Paradise, instead concentrating on a more sordid episode in Columbus' life - his despotic and capricious administration of the West Indies, which he had earlier claimed for Spain. All the dramatic possibilities were there, and all were wasted.

THERE are few dramatic possibilities in evidence in The Biggest Battle (Pearl, 1.55am) a film that has more titles than it has good moments. It has also been known throughout its uneventful life as The Greatest Battle, Battle Force and The Great Battle, but it is actually just a battle to get to the end of, even when the end is only a shortish 90 minutes from the beginning.

It, whatever it is called, is a 1978 German-Yugoslav production (drifting off already?), a strange and amateurish mish-mash of newsreel footage narrated by Orson Welles and vignettes featuring the likes of director John Huston, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Osmond. Hang on, is that the Jimmy Osmond? ON the BBC World Service Business Matters (7.25am, 9.25am and 2.25pm) is a rose on this day of thorns.