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'Thoroughly engrossing' --Los Angeles Times
'Heartily recommended' --The New York Times
'Filled with wonderful characters and bravura turns' --The New York Times
As seen on Masterpiece Theatre
Eager to see more of the world, Richard Herncastle (Oscar® winner Colin Firth, The King’s Speech) joins a traveling stage act run by his uncle Nick (John Castle, The Lion in Winter). His new colleagues are an assorted bunch of singers, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, and comedians, including one (Oscar® winner Laurence Olivier, Rebecca) 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.
Nominated for six BAFTA awards and a supporting actor Emmy® for Olivier, this haunting saga based on J.B. Priestley’s novel garnered acclaim on Masterpiece Theatre. Set on the eve of World War I, Lost Empire unfolds against the backdrop of the coming conflict in Europe--and the growing sense that the world is about to change forever.
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Top Customer Reviews
It is hard for those who were not around before television and the cinema to understand what a major business and way of life the music hall was. The entertainers, booking agents, theatre staff and others who made their living from the travelling performers who moved from town to dreary town bringing a little cheer and entertainment to the lives of workers in hard dull occupations.
The series shows how some entertainers spent their entire careers on the circuit singing maudlin songs, or performing in unchanging comedy or acrobatic routines - the animal acts, the knockabout comics. As there was no social security or unemployment pay, losing, or not getting a booking, could mean devastating poverty (read Charlie Chaplin's autobiography - his mother losing her voice and with it her singing career ended in the workhouse for the whole family). There was also a hierarchy in the circuits, London being the prize, and the northern and working class districts inferior. A performers status could be judged by where he or she was booked to play.
Although the era of the music hall as a primary form of entertainment ended after WWI, it staggered on until the 1950's as I can remember being taken to the Palace in Halifax, Yorkshire to see variety shows every week, and it lasted even longer in seaside towns headlined by popular TV entertainers.
The only reason for not rating this five stars is the quality of the picture - grainy and by disc 3, blurred. The color is uneven. I don't know whether this is due to the transfer from the British system, or whether TV quality 19 years ago was worse than we realise, but it is distracting. The lack of subtitles or close captions was also disappointing as it was hard to make out what they were saying at times, but as the miniseries was so faithful to the book, it was possible to read the book to find out what the characters had said.
Other than the gripes, the location shooting and recreating of grimy working class towns, the seaside holiday resorts and the music hall is one glorious feast for the eyes. The statuesque contralto bellowing out patriotic songs while draped in the flag - the peppy recruiting songs by the chorus dressed as soldiers - the holidaymakers oblivious of the war to come, are worth the price of the DVD. I would recommend this to anyone interested not just in theatre, but in the way of life pre WWI.
Based on the novel by JB Priestley, LE chronicles the adventures of young Richard Herncastle (Firth), an aspiring landscape painter, who in 1913 accepts an offer from his hard-nosed Uncle Nick (John Castle II) to join his magic act and tour the great `empire halls' on England.
Uncle Nick promises "I'll show you the world lad!" In the process young Richard gets more than he bargained for in the way of life adventures. . Firth's Herncastle finds himself thrown together with magicians, dwarfs, sad-sack comedians, flirty torch-song singers, suffragettes and aging Sir Lawrence Olivier. And he also quickly becomes the lightning rod that somehow touches all their lives.
The first half of LE, featuring Sir Lawrence Olivier as pathetic comedian Harry Barrard, Carmen du Sautoy as sultry Julie Blaine, John Castle's riveting Uncle Nick and Beattie Edney as love interest Nancy Ellis is where Lost Empires shines! We feel the whole world opening up for Richard as he is torn between Nancy and Julie. Every night this travelling company performs authentic song and dance numbers as we see World War I looming in the background.
Of special note is John Castle. Playing master illusionist "Ganga Dun" Castle's Nick Ollanton creates a character so vivid and steely that he virtually steals the DVD.
The second half of LE slows down a bit after young Richard has learned a few life lessons the hard way. The vibrant personalities of first half give way to more outrageous, less believable ones.
The DVD transfer is what you'd expect from most Granada product of the 80's: film grain is a bit much, but the colors are good, and I quickly "saw beyond" the grain of film. The sound is actually quite clear and vibrant with a large dynamic range. I frequently was "riding" the volume control to back off the volume when the director cut from quiet dialog scenes to the Empire performance scenes. There is no info booklet to speak of with the three discs which was a bit of a letdown (Brideshead Revisited ships with a rather informative booklet by contrast.) ...
If however you are looking for a group of clearly drawn characters desperate to hold onto a way of living, performing and loving as "The New World" is about to crush them under war and the onset of "talking movies" then LE is for you. If you've got the dough to spare, get it. If you're unsure, pick up Brideshead Revisited instead.
Me, I'm happy now that my "Masterpiece Theater" DVD shelf contains the three things I've always wanted: Brideshead, Prime Suspect and now Lost Empires.