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"Lost Empires"
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Reviews & Ratings for
"Lost Empires" More at IMDbPro »

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40 out of 43 people found the following review useful:

Brilliant show-business epic

10/10
Author: F Gwynplaine MacIntyre from Minffordd, North Wales
7 February 2003

The mini-series 'Lost Empires' is a brilliant adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel, extremely faithful to the original text (even using much of Priestley's dialogue) yet opening up the material to heighten the contrast between the false world of the British music-hall (where this story's leading characters spend much of their time) and the grim reality of life in working-class England in the months leading into the Great War. The opening scene of the first episode sets up the mood perfectly, with a chorus girl in military drag as Tommy Atkins, singing the recruitment song 'We Don't Want to Lose You, But We Think You Ought to Go'.

The title 'Lost Empires' is a pun. Explicitly, it refers to the events of the First World War causing the deterioration of the British Empire and the decline of Britain as a global power. More subtly, the title refers to the leading chain of variety theatres in Britain's major cities during the early twentieth century, known as the Empires (the Bristol Empire, the Glasgow Empire, and so forth). Even more subtly, the decline of Britain's variety halls (paralleling the death of vaudeville in America) happened at roughly the same time as the decline of Britain as a world power. There are many levels of meaning in Priestley's novel, and this mini-series cleverly depicts them all.

Colin Firth is splendid as the callow young Richard Herncastle. It's 1913: Herncastle has left school and is now seeking a career. Unexpectedly, he gets an offer from his uncle Nick (played by the brilliant John Castle). Nick is a stage magician who tours the variety halls with an elaborate stage act involving all manner of trick apparatus and stage effects. Nick offers Richard a job, in charge of maintaining the act's equipment and arranging its transport from one theatre to the next. Also, Richard will appear onstage as Richard's assistant, wearing an elaborate Arabian Nights costume and riding a bicycle during a vanishing-trick. As the plot progresses into the events of 1914, Britain is plunged headlong into the war ... and Richard must contemplate a vanishing-trick of another sort.

Laurence Olivier is prominently featured in (only) the first episode of this series as Harry Burrard, a comedian who isn't funny ... and whose deathly-bad performances are harming the success of every other act on the bill. This series depicts the routine of variety-hall performers with keen accuracy. Because Nick and Richard are on the same bill as Harry, they more or less have to live with him round the clock: he travels with them aboard the same trains from one engagement to the next, and stays in the same theatrical hotels with them. Olivier gives a stand-out performance, as Burrard gradually reveals his paranoia and his increasing mental disturbances. I recall that when 'Lost Empires' first premiered on television in Britain, several critics made glib comparisons between Olivier's role here and his performance as Archie Rice, the untalented pierside comedian in 'The Entertainer'. These are two entirely different roles, and Olivier gives one of his finest performances in 'Lost Empires'. My only complaint about this excellent mini-series is that Olivier's abrupt departure in the first episode skews the dramatic emphasis towards the beginning of this series rather than its final episode.

'Lost Empires' is a triumph: well-written, well-directed, brilliantly paced and well-acted all round. No question: I rate this series 10 out of 10.

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20 out of 20 people found the following review useful:

Another Priestly Delight

10/10
Author: theowinthrop from United States
2 July 2006

It is rather odd, but certain writers seem neglected while others are published and again who are just as good as neglected ones. I've commented several times on how Hugh Walpole, who was a leading novelist for the first part of this century is barely recalled now, while James Hilton is remembered for two novels (GOODBYE MR. CHIPS and LOST HORIZON) that just took off with the public, and never lost their popularity. While successful films assist this, that is not a guarantee. J.B.Priestly was the author of plays and novels, and the plays are occasionally revived, but most people don't remember him.

Priestly wrote the play for AN INSPECTOR CALLS (memorably filmed with Alistair Sim in the title role), and the story for LAST HOLIDAY (also a well made film with Alec Guiness). His novel LOST EMPIRES was turned into this seven part series twenty years ago, following the experiences of young Richard Herncastle (Colin Firth) working in the magic act of his uncle Nick Ollanton (John Castle) in the year just before the beginning of World War I. Nick is a rather silent type, very business-like and efficient in producing his magic tricks - but sharped tongued and cynical when pressed. Yet he invites his nephew into this lifestyle, which is certainly more colorful than Richard experiences at home.

What follows mingles Priestly acute sense of history with the growth of Richard's manhood. Richard discovers his values and his first loves in the vaudeville "Empires" around him, and he is dragged into the cross currents of the world as it changes. It is more than just the on-coming tide to World War I, but an episode deals with Nick using the magic act to spirit a fugitive suffragette away from the police, and another act deals with Richard falling for a young woman on the bill as a singer (with a piano accompanist) who are also drug users.

The series had one of the last (if not the last) appearance of Laurence Olivier as a fading comedian who has long lost his audience of his comic abilities. Olivier's act has to do with a teacher who is singing a song that displays his absurd learning, but it is something that might have been popular about 1889 or 1893, not twenty years later. He should have retired years before, but Harry Burrard (Olivier's role) has no where else to go. And his brain is also collapsing into paranoia. As was stated already on this thread, it was a wonderful performance - ironically it was in the first episode only. For that reason most people thinking of this fine series usually think of it only because of Olivier, not because of the other meaty performances and excellent source writing that were involved. Again another blow to Priestly, but one fully deserving (for his sake) to be seen in whole if you can find it.

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9 out of 10 people found the following review useful:

Show Business, Music Hall Style, WWI

8/10
Author: clotblaster from United States
30 January 2008

Good but not great depiction of travelling "vaudeville" in England just as WWI commences. The plot is serviceable, but the ambiance and the characters are outstanding.

A diverse group of show business performers are presented in all their individuality and also as a certain generalized type of performer and human being.

The atmosphere is dominated by a somewhat perverse, nasty and mysterious magician, who is Colin Firth's character's Uncle Nick. He is outstanding and sets the tone for the show. Firth is rather bland, but it should be interesting for viewers to see him act as a young man.

Anyone with in an interest in show business, even if it's just an historical interest, will find this series quite satisfying, though not stunning.

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0 out of 5 people found the following review useful:

Colin Firth Overrated

3/10
Author: Katerina Robertovla from United States
12 August 2013

hello folks. I am dictating this via my smartphone. So some of these words may not come out perfectly. I watched thiis entire series on Netflix. I found that Colin Firth was a total bore. As an actor he is so boring, bland, expressionless, and just totally lacking warm. I'm sorry to spoil all the Colin Firth fans out there but I found him to be unbearable. Simply put, everyone around him, that is, every actor around him was so full of life and robustly human; however, Firth's characterization was just blah, nothing and I don't get how all the women fancy him so much. I also found that he looked weird and unappealing. I don't think this actor has eyebrows. This is also true for the actress Whoopi Goldberg. She has no eyebrows also. I dare say I do not know all the actors that were working in 1985-86 but I think they could have found one way more appealing physically and emotionally. I never understood the appeal of this actor.

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