Lost Empires by J. B. Priestley, adapted by Bert Coules

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BBC Radio 7, 30 June - 2 July 2010
First published in 1965, Lost Empires draws a well-worn analogy between the music-hall and British history leading up to the outbreak of World War I. These were the golden years - a time when it seemed that the sun would never set on the Empire, and Britain really did believe that it ruled the waves. Likewise the music-hall seemed in rude health at that time, with variety companies criss-crossing the country playing twice-nightly at Empires, Hippodromes, Theatre Royals and Palaces.
In Lost Empires the music-hall provides a perfect means for young Richard (Richard Hollick) to acquire a life-education. Taken on as an assistant stage-manager by his despotic uncle Nick Ollerton (Tom Baker), he discovers both the good and bad sides of music-hall life; the buzz of performing in front of live audiences; the thrill of trying new acts; and the shattering disillusion when performers discover that they are no longer welcomed by the paying public. The life of a performer is an insecure one; although guaranteed regular work for the duration of each tour, they are just as likely to be handed their cards if they displease Nick. Richard also learns about the pitfalls of love - although besotted with young singer Nancy Ellis (Kathryn Hunt), he eventually falls into bed with ageing has-been Julie Blane (Brigid Forsyth).
While Kate Rowland's production had plenty of jollity, with real-life audience reactions recorded at the Oldham Coliseum theatre, it made much of the seamier side of music-hall life. Older performers such as Harry G. Burrard (Freddie 'Parrot-Face' Davies) had nothing else except their act; once they had passed the peak of their careers, they could look forward to nothing else except death. Burrard took the easy way out by shooting himself in his dressing-room during a performance. Even Nick did not seem very happy, in spite of the fact that audiences apparently loved his magic act. When Richard announced his intention to leave the company and enlist in the army, Nick reacted resentfully: how could anyone dare to leave his company? However reason eventually prevailed: at the end of the adaptation Nick called the entire company together and admitted that he had been slightly less than exemplary as a manager. Perhaps he too had realized that the First World War would signal the end of music-hall life as he had known it.
The production was narrated by Old Richard (Bryan Pringle) looking back at his days in the music-hall with a mixture of nostalgia and hard-headed pragmatism. Touring the country might have had its pleasurable aspects, but it was rather like living in a goldfish-bowl, insulated from the world outside. Perhaps this helps to explain why life changed so cataclysmically after the First World War, as people discovered - perhaps for the first time - what was happening around them.

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