"Lost Empires" opens with British soldiers lost in the mist on a French battlefield. This scene is followed immediately by a rousing recruitment drive on the variety stage. It is 1914. We are instantly swept up by the patriotic fervor of the performers and the audience.
Back in the French woods, young Richard Herncastle is sitting in the trenches while Colin's voiceover tells the story. There, at the front, Richard is surprised to see a figure from his past: the vivacious and talented Nancy Ellis here to entertain the troops. She is singing the hauntingly beautiful: "You're the handsomest boy I’ve ever seen . . ." But suddenly during her performance, an explosion, bombs, and artillery fire occur. . . Everyone flees for dear life. Nancy Ellis is whisked away in a jeep, and Richard cries out for her. Unfortunately he is struck by a mortar shell, and it is at the bottom of a crater filled with bodies that Nancy finds him. Holding the head of the inert Richard, she cries out for help.
At this point, the main part of the story begins, flashing back to events before the war. The story is told from Richard’s point of view, and there is extensive commentary on events in the form of voiceovers from Richard—obviously as an older man reflecting on his youth and experiences.
At the start, Richard is a young man working as a clerk in Bruddersford, Yorkshire. Richard’s mother has just died. Her brother, Nick Ollanton, arrives in town in a big car for the funeral. Uncle Nick is known on the stage as Gunga Dun, Indian magician. He offers a job as on-stage assistant to the orphaned Richard. He assures his nephew this will give him "a taste of the big bad world." Richard had yearned to become a painter but the pay and opportunity are too good to pass up.
We (and Richard) are now introduced to the gallery of colorful characters who people the world of Empire theatres. In dreary Newcastle, Richard meets his uncle’s assistant, the warm-hearted Cissie Mapes, who shows him his "digs"; Nonie Colmar, the French acrobat who loves to flirt and tease men; Harry Burrard, the pathetic, aging comic now made fun of by the raucous public; Ricarlo, the Italian juggler; the comedian Tommy Beamish ("bombastic and crude") and his assistant, the sultry Julie Blane ("a fascinating mixture of cool beauty and warm promise"). The act that really holds Richard's attention from the start is the singing act titled "Suzy, Nancy, and the Three Gentlemen." From the first sight, Richard is "barmy" and enthralled by young Nancy Ellis.
Part of Richard's initiation to the life of the theatre is also the slow discovery that Uncle Nick is a hard man. Nick is willing to share his misogynist views and dire predictions with his impressionable nephew. As the episode unfolds, Nancy is seen snubbing Richard while Julie is inviting him to her dressing room. Repeatedly Richard is warned by different people to stay away from Julie. Uncle Nick warns: "To her you're like fresh meat to a tiger . . ."
Burrard is also drawn to Richard. The washed-up
comedian confides that there is a conspiracy of the public against him.
In Glasgow, the next stop, Harry Burrard shoots himself in his dressing
room. The episode ends with Richard and Nancy clinging to each other as
Burrard's corpse is being slowly taken away from the theatre by the police.