1 9 8 6 (UK)
7 x 60 minute episodes
The hero of J B Priestley’s last work, which became Granada’s £5 million serial, Lost Empires, was twenty-year-old Richard Herncastle, forced to join a troupe of magicians touring the music halls as the First World War took its toll.
Colin Firth played him as a huffy Yorkshire lad, shyly in love with Beatie Edney’s lovely dancer Nancy, then recklessly undone by Carmen du Sautoy’s worldly drink-sodden Julie.
Seven episodes began with a stage-show opening out to the trenches as shells dropped, a stunning set-piece reminiscent of Oh! What A Lovely War.
The story then moved with the troupe, much of the filming done in the palatial theatres of the North-West of England, including the Lyceum in Manchester, the Grand in Blackpool, the Palace in Manchester and the New Tyne Theatre in Newcastle.
Extras had the unusual task of booing Laurence Olivier when he played the eccentric old comedian Harry Burrard. To everyone’s alarm he actually slipped and fell on the Buxton Opera House stage, but he staggered up and carried on.
Brian Glover was frightening as the terribly violent Tommy Beamish and Pamela Stephenson’s cameo as showgirl Lily, teamed up with Alfred Marks as her pianist-manager Otto, was nicely controlled.
John Castle, taught his stage tricks by magician David Hemingway, triumphed as the glowering cold-hearted master illusionist Nick Ollanton, though he fell victim to one of Pamela’s jokes.
After she had watched him being served plate after plate of roast beef in the retakes of one scene, she arranged for the hotel to call him to the lobby that night for a special supper. There he found a whole live cow waiting.
June Howson’s production was faultless, everything looked sumptuous – almost too good: lushly upholstered trains, lavish spreads at restaurants, lodgings with mahogany furniture aglow . . .
But somehow, Lost Empires was less than the sum of all these splendid parts.
Carmen Du Sautoy
Jean Marie Segal