Lost Empires

Priestley’s last novel of the first rank and a marvellous return to form after some fairly fallow years by his own highest standards. His ‘Empires’ are the variety theatres, great and small, splendid and shabby, which in the early part of the 20th century were to be found in cities and towns throughout the country and are now no more. Into them steps Richard Herncastle, an aspiring young painter from the West Riding of Yorkshire, who on the death of his mother, agrees to join a troupe of theatrical artistes led by his uncle, Nick Ollanton, otherwise ‘Ganga Dun’, a celebrated and successful mock-Indian magician and illusionist. The long narrative describes Herncastle’s life on the variety stage from October 1913 to August 1914 when he joins the Army and leaves his uncle, and the variety stage, for good. It is the author’s purpose to show the contrast between the on-stage gaiety and glitter and the often discordant, sometimes sordid, realities backstage. Murder, violence, suicide, intrigue, deception and sex, ‘sacred and profane’, are just the more exotic ingredients in a narrative which is, perhaps, the richest Priestley ever wrote. There are darker and deeper tones to be found in this novel than in any of the others (the contrast with the similarly-themed The Good Companions is stark); and there is a superb gallery of characters.

The novel was re-issued by Great Northern Books in 2012 with introductory contributions from Barry Cryer, Roy Hudd and Priestley’s son, Tom Priestley. There is a sumptuous and faithful Granada television version dating from 1986, which is available on DVD and can be enthusiastically recommended. The part of Herncastle is played by the then little- known but now celebrated Colin Firth.

In 1985 the Cambridge Theatre Company, in association with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, presented a musical version of the novel in an adaptation by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall and with music by Denis King.

The J B Priestley Society has published a critical guide to the novel, All The World’s A Stage, which is available for sale in hard copy or download

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