Do yourself a favor tonight and try to make it through the first 15 minutes of J.B. Priestley’s seven-part “Lost Empires” (9 tonight, Channel 2). By then, you’ll probably be hooked.
If you really have to gobble a handful of aspirins and take to bed for the rest of the night, tape tonight’s two-hour premiere or promise yourself that you’ll watch it when it’s repeated at 11 p.m. Wednesday. You won’t be sorry.
That’s assuming, of course, that you have a moderate appetite for eccentric British characters and tangled love stories.
Priestley’s 1965 novel concerned the final days of the British music halls before the start of World War I, an era he experienced as a boy from Yorkshire. The title refers to a string of British variety theaters named Empire that all but disappeared after the war.
The story’s main character, Richard Herncastle (Colin Firth), is a 20-year-old clerk who lacks worldly knowledge, but gains it fast after agreeing to join his Uncle Nick’s magic act as assistant and equipment manager.
Nick (John Castle) is a brooding, serious man who performs as Ganga Dun, an Indian illusionist who makes his assistant Cissie Mapes (Gillian Bevan) disappear in a variety of mysterious ways.
While Nick is a harsh taskmaster and a disciplined performer, the other members of the touring music hall troupe are about as bizarre as any group you’re likely to encounter on TV. The real charm and fascination of “Lost Empires” is the tacky, melancholy, hilarious life of the show people. Priestley’s characters are so alive and so finely etched that you feel as though you’re going to a new school with Richard and meeting dozens of classmates who are destined to play important roles in your own life.
Firth plays Richard as a more self-assured and aggressive character than the usual young-man-in-the-big-world that Dickens and other writers have made popular. It doesn’t take him long to begin arguing with Nick over how to do his job and to strike up relationships with four women who could mean potential trouble for him.
He finds himself falling in love with Nancy Ellis (Beatie Ednie), a pretty but insincere song-and-dance artist. At the same time, he is drifting into a physical relationship with Julie Blane (Carmen Du Sautoy), the worldly assistant to popular but sadistic comedian Tommy Beamish (Brian Glover).
Richard also finds that Cissie needs comfort from her one-sided love affair with Nick, and he’s the object of some obvious flirtations from French acrobat Nonie Colmar (Francesca McGregor).
The most pathetic and memorable character is Harry Burrard, played with typical insight and craft by Sir Laurence Olivier. Burrard is an aging comedian who is routinely booed at each stop; his makeup and hairpiece are ridiculous, and he has the annoying off-stage habit of telling boring stories or baring his paranoid fears.
“His days are done, and the poor bugger knows it,” Nick tells Richard.
Burrard drinks too much, listens too little, and Richard’s idea of hell is being trapped in a train compartment with Harry Burrard on a long trip between performances. Olivier’s brilliance is that he makes you share Richard’s hell, while intensely the acting ability that creates it.
Nick runs a close second to Burrard as a standout character. He’s married, but pays his fat wife 10 pounds a week to keep away from him, according to Cissie.
No one understands the seamy underside of theater life better than Nick; he’s not exactly above it, but he mixes contempt for his colleagues with a healthy interest in their failings. He tries his best to teach Richard the ropes, even if it means slandering his associates.
Nick becomes angry with the dwarf who assists in his illusions and threatens to wire to London for another dwarf, whom he claims are plentiful.
“He hates us because we’re normal,” Nick confides to Richard.
Nick also tries to keep Richard out of personal entanglements he’s not prepared to handle, such as the one Richard is contemplating with Julie.
“You’re a good-looking lad,” Nick tells Richard. “So far, you’ve known nothing and you’ve been nowhere. To someone like her, you’re fresh meat to a tiger. Keep away from her, lad, or she’ll eat you for breakfast.”
Of course, Richard is too headstrong to heed Nick’s warnings, and he becomes pancakes and sausage for just about every evil mind in the company. But “Lost Empires” wouldn’t be much fun if Richard took all of Nick’s advice.
The golden age is gone, lad,” Nick sighs at one point. “We’re slithering into a bog, slithering into a bog, and no one is stopping us.”
The bog turns out to be World War I, which acts as a natural forge in which a new British society is formed. The old one, as reflected by the show people in “Lost Empires,” appears to have been pretty sickly, but it certainly didn’t lack for entertainment.
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