7 February 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Brilliant show-business epic
The mini-series 'Lost Empires' is a brilliant adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel, extremely faithful to the original text (even using much of Priestley's dialogue) yet opening up the material to heighten the contrast between the false world of the British music-hall (where this story's leading characters spend much of their time) and the grim reality of life in working-class England in the months leading into the Great War. The opening scene of the first episode sets up the mood perfectly, with a chorus girl in military drag as Tommy Atkins, singing the recruitment song 'We Don't Want to Lose You, But We Think You Ought to Go'.
The title 'Lost Empires' is a pun. Explicitly, it refers to the events of the First World War causing the deterioration of the British Empire and the decline of Britain as a global power. More subtly, the title refers to the leading chain of variety theatres in Britain's major cities during the early twentieth century, known as the Empires (the Bristol Empire, the Glasgow Empire, and so forth). Even more subtly, the decline of Britain's variety halls (paralleling the death of vaudeville in America) happened at roughly the same time as the decline of Britain as a world power. There are many levels of meaning in Priestley's novel, and this mini-series cleverly depicts them all.
Colin Firth is splendid as the callow young Richard Herncastle. It's 1913: Herncastle has left school and is now seeking a career. Unexpectedly, he gets an offer from his uncle Nick (played by the brilliant John Castle). Nick is a stage magician who tours the variety halls with an elaborate stage act involving all manner of trick apparatus and stage effects. Nick offers Richard a job, in charge of maintaining the act's equipment and arranging its transport from one theatre to the next. Also, Richard will appear onstage as Richard's assistant, wearing an elaborate Arabian Nights costume and riding a bicycle during a vanishing-trick. As the plot progresses into the events of 1914, Britain is plunged headlong into the war ... and Richard must contemplate a vanishing-trick of another sort.
Laurence Olivier is prominently featured in (only) the first episode of this series as Harry Burrard, a comedian who isn't funny ... and whose deathly-bad performances are harming the success of every other act on the bill. This series depicts the routine of variety-hall performers with keen accuracy. Because Nick and Richard are on the same bill as Harry, they more or less have to live with him round the clock: he travels with them aboard the same trains from one engagement to the next, and stays in the same theatrical hotels with them. Olivier gives a stand-out performance, as Burrard gradually reveals his paranoia and his increasing mental disturbances. I recall that when 'Lost Empires' first premiered on television in Britain, several critics made glib comparisons between Olivier's role here and his performance as Archie Rice, the untalented pierside comedian in 'The Entertainer'. These are two entirely different roles, and Olivier gives one of his finest performances in 'Lost Empires'. My only complaint about this excellent mini-series is that Olivier's abrupt departure in the first episode skews the dramatic emphasis towards the beginning of this series rather than its final episode.
'Lost Empires' is a triumph: well-written, well-directed, brilliantly paced and well-acted all round. No question: I rate this series 10 out of 10.