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Lost Empires

Release Year:   1986
Studio:   Acorn Media
Format:   Colour; NTSC; Miniseries
Rated:   Not Rated
# of Discs / Episodes:   3 / 7
Running Time:   410 m
DVD Release Date:   September 27, 2011

Creator:   Based on the novel by J.B. Priestley
Screenwriter:   Ian Curteis
Director:   Alan Grint
Actors:   Colin Firth, John Castle, Gillian Bevan, Neil Boorman, Mike Edmonds, Clive Hill, Ted Morris, Carmen Du Sautoy
DVD Features:   SDH Subtitles
E: Top Picks Rating:   8/10   Some nudity, sexual situations and strong language

Acorn Media Write-up:

Brimming with romance, drama, and brilliant performances, and starring Oscar winner Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) in one of his first roles, Lost Empires arrives to DVD. Nominated for six BAFTAs, the sumptuous miniseries stars Colin Firth as a young man coming of age on the eve of World War I, and co-stars John Castle (The Lion in the Winter) and Oscar winner Laurence Olivier (Rebecca), who was nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actor for his performance. Based on the novel by J.B. Priestley and broadcast on ITV and PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre in the late 1980s, Lost Empires is a haunting and gripping saga that unfolds against the backdrop of the coming conflict in Europe – and the growing sense that the world is about to change forever. The 3-disc boxed set includes all seven episodes.

Eager to see more of the world, Richard Herncastle (Colin Firth) joins a traveling stage act run by his uncle Nick (John Castle). His new colleagues are an assorted bunch of singers, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, and comedians, including one (Laurence Olivier) whose best days are well behind him. Captivated by the group’s female performers, Richard embarks upon a series of love affairs as the act tours the length and breadth of Britain.

Jon Ted Wynne Review:

With the most recent Best Actor Oscar deservedly going to Colin Firth, it is not surprising that the vigilant folks at Acorn Video would comb the British television archives and pull out one of young Mr. Firth’s earliest performances.

Although he is perfectly competent in LOST EMPIRES, the 7-episode series based on J.B. Priestly’s novel about the music hall era of theatrical presentation, which serves as a fitting metaphor for English society immediately prior to World War I, Firth doesn’t really display the subtlety of his later work. Fair enough. He was only 25 when this series was made.

Still, he is a compelling presence. His everyman sort of face draws the viewer in and allows them to discover the wonder, the seediness, the fascination and the boredom of the theatre world at a time when constant touring was the norm and job security was simply unknown.

It helps that Firth is surrounded by a stellar cast, including, famously, Laurence Olivier in one of his last roles. It has often been put forth that Olivier’s Harry Burrard is Archie Rice (the role he originated on stage and later repeated on film in “The Entertainer”) twenty years later, but that is an unfair comparison. Every performance of Olivier’s was a new creation and the only similarity between Burrard and Rice is their occupation—mediocre music hall comedian.

Even though Olivier’s character appears in one episode only, the rest of the cast keeps the viewer engaged through to the end. John Castle, as Firth’s Svengali-like uncle, is a mesmerizing presence, and the deliciously lovely Beatie Edney is one of Firth’s loves (and arguably his most ardent – hence the sexual situation warning).

The real draw of this series is the superb atmosphere. The old theatres reek of mildew and the less-than-adequate digs are so dank you almost have to hold your nose in some scenes.

LOST EMPIRES was nominated for numerous awards, and deservedly so. It presents a slice of English history that won’t appeal to everyone, but for the Masterpiece Theatre crowd, this is a little-known treasure, to be re-discovered and savoured.