Lost Empires is set in Edwardian England, about a year before WWI. As the mini-series begins, Richard Herncastle (Colin Firth) is a soldier. He sees Nancy Ellis (Beatie Edney), a face from his past, entertaining the troops — and then there is a gigantic explosion and Nancy finds Richard unconscious and bloody in a trench.
An older Richard Herncastle picks up the narration, looking back on his youth and his time with his Uncle Nick Ollanton’s (John Castle) traveling repertory theatre, “Before the war to end war, I was on the stage — on the stage, where the smiles are as bright as the lights, because you’re not supposed to see the unhappiness and the pain.”
Uncle Nick (John Castle) lectures Richard (Colin Firth) about theatre life
Richard had always wanted to be a painter, but after his mother dies his uncle’s offer to join his variety troupe seems like the best offer he’ll get. Young and very naive in the ways of the world, he soon gets immersed in the lives of his fellow performers, joining Nick’s magic act, who is known onstage as Gunga Din.
The 1986 series was directed by Alan Grint and dramatized by Ian Curteis. It is beautifully filmed, with period-accurate sets and wardrobe. The acting is also top-notch and the very young Colin Firth is appealing as the callow but well-meaning hero. Lost Empires was based on the novel by J. B. Priestley. The DVD features episode selection and subtitles. The seven episodes follow Richard’s coming-of-age in the theater and his romantic trials and tribulations.
Richard learns quickly in the first episode that Uncle Nick is a tough character, an apparent misogynist who treats his assistant and lover Cissie Mapes (Gillian Bevan) with disdain, and who is forever ruthless about trying to preserve his show. Richard is drawn towards another young performer, Nancy, who feigns disinterest in him, as well as the older and exotic Julie Blane (Carmen du Sautoy), who seems to like him in a predatory way. He dislikes the washed-up comedian Harry Burrard (Laurence Olivier), who can’t seem to reconcile himself to the fact that his popular days as a performer are on the wane. Olivier is great in one of his last roles as the obnoxious but still affecting and tragic Harry.
Richard and Harry (Laurence Olivier) share a rare moment together
In the second episode Richard and Nancy grow closer, and are late getting back to the theatre after one of their excursions. Uncle Nick is none too pleased, but is it because of their budding romance or how they affected his show? Richard also learns that Nick can perform his magic act in real-life situations — he helps a suffragette “disappear,” and avoid arrest by the police, with the help of Julie, “We’re all just props to Mr. Ollanton.”
Richard learns about Julie’s links to Tommy Beamish (Brian Glover) in the third episode. Julie pursues him aggressively, and still smarting from Nancy leaving with her sister to perform in a pantomime troupe, he allows himself to be pursued and caught “It was just so tantalizing … tormenting almost, being under the same roof as a fascinating, bewitching creature like Julie.” But how does he feel about Julie and, maybe more to the point, Nancy?
Richard continues his affair with Julie in the fourth episode, but can’t help thinking about Nancy. “I knew I wasn’t really the man for Julie. Just a young substitute for the lover who deserted her. We weren’t ‘in love,’ but we were friends within our mutual sexual obsession.” Tommy has a very violent reaction to Julie’s having a lover. Uncle Nick looks out for Richard by humiliating Tommy onstage and sending him away and Richard decides to pursue his “true love,” but gets sidetracked consoling Cissie. Nick also wants to add an extra dwarf to his magic act and Richard accompanies him to a theatrical agent’s office to see some prospective candidates.
Richard is drawn to Julie (Carmen du Sautoy), but only temporarily
In the fifth episode Richard meets some popular local performers — singer Lily Farris (Pamela Stephenson), her handler and piano player Otto Mergen, and Lily’s boyfriend Alfred. She asks him to paint her portrait, but Richard isn’t prepared for Lily’s erratic behavior and her decadent lifestyle. He and Cissie attend a strange party hosted by Lily. Things keep going wrong with Nick’s magic act, and they are booked into worse and worse theaters. Richard is invited by Mergen to attend another party and learns the full extent of Lily and Mergen’s perverted lifestyle.
Richard still marvels at the difference between Lily onstage and off, but no longer has any contact with her or Mergen. As if his life couldn’t get any more dramatic, Richard is now involved in a murder investigation — one of the female acrobats has been strangled. Nick has a typical “she was asking for it” response to the crime. Cissie’s constant attempts to get closer to Richard backfire and she is replaced by Doris Tingley (Patricia Quinn). The formidable Inspector Crabbe (Jim Carter) takes over the murder investigation and everywhere predictions of oncoming war are looming.
Will Richard and Nancy (Beatie Edney) ever see eye-to-eye?
In the final episode, Richard is momentarily distracted from the war and murder at the theatre by a woman named Peggy from his rooming house. Inspector Crabbe closes in, but may be too late to catch the killer. Nick’s obsession with having an extra dwarf in the magic act is finally revealed. Nick doesn’t believe in the war and announces that he is closing the show and will soon head to America. He is going to put a new show together in America and will be sailing on the Lusitania (!) He wants Richard to join him, but Richard enlists instead, “He had kept his promise. He had shown me the big wide world. He had let me enjoy it and make some bitter mistakes but the boy from the Dales had become a man …”
We are now back to the first scenes of the series, with Richard in the army watching Nancy perform for the soldiers, interrupted by an explosion. Nancy finds him and calls for help. Does she visit him in the hospital or is it all an illusion, his wishful thinking?
Lost Empires is about people in a world full of changes beyond their control. It’s a nice glimpse into another era and easy to see why Firth has become such a star.