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ACTOR COLIN FIRTH : NOSTALGIA REGAINED IN CURRENT ‘LOST EMPIRES’

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There’s no nostalgia like show business nostalgia. Of all nationalities, the English are most apt to shed a tear over dimly remembered performances, long-dead stage giants, even vanished theaters themselves.

“Lost Empires,” the seven-part costume drama now running on public television’s “Masterpiece Theatre” on Sunday nights, taps directly into England’s longing for the era when all the world was an English stage.

Based on a 1965 autobiographical novel by that supreme nostalgist J. B. Priestley, “Lost Empires” depicts the coming of age of a tongue-tied Yorkshire lad when he falls among actors. His education is complete when he marches off to the trenches of World War I.

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“The old stage-for-life analogy is the basis of the piece,” says Colin Firth, the rising young star who plays the central character of “Lost Empires.” “The whole purpose of the theater is to play tricks on people’s imaginations, but no one falls for the tricks as quickly as actors. An entirely sane person, if there is such a thing, wouldn’t make a very good actor.”

Firth’s character, Richard Herncastle, is an oasis of sanity among a neurotic assemblage of tumblers, comedians, chanteuses, dancers and necromancers who travel an endless circuit of Empire Theatres, one in every town in England. Firth plays an aspiring artist who hires on as an assistant to his uncle, an acid-tongued magician (John Castle).

Firth is a lot more worldly wise than his character, who “hasn’t a clue about women.” His manner forthright, his gaze steady, Firth says of himself, “I have a certain amount of confidence in the sound of my own voice. I don’t melt and blush very easily.”

Firth’s first professional engagement was replacing Rupert Everett in the London stage production of “Another Country.” From playing that outspokenly homosexual role in the theater, Firth went on to play a straight supporting role in the 1984 film version.

“In drama school (London’s Drama Centre) I tended to get flamboyant characters, paranoids and psychos (Hamlet was his crowning achievement as a student). Since then, I’ve been astonished to find myself playing naive, sensitive, romantic young chaps.”

Firth played Armand in a 1984 CBS television remake of “Camille.” He will be seen later this year in two British films, “1919” and “A Month in the Country.” In both, as in “Lost Empires” and several other recent British TV roles, Firth appears more or less naive, sensitive, romantic and above all young.

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Every handsome young actor, from Lord Laurence Olivier (who had a role in the first installment of “Lost Empires”) down to Firth, has had to pass through the stage of playing these humorless youths. Still, such a problem never occurred to Firth when at age 14, he recalls, “I announced to myself and everyone else that I would become an actor.

“I’m not sure how serious I was at first. It was a nice thing to be able to say at school. It was a good way to abdicate responsibility for academic matters. I had no idea what acting as a way of life entailed.”

Firth’s father was a teacher who liked changes of scene. So the boy was brought up in such diverse places as Nigeria, Southern England and St. Louis. St. Louis was the “most hideous memory” in Firth’s childhood because “I was a precocious brat with grass-stained knees who was too proud to be silent.”

At 18, the unprepared would-be actor arrived in London and joined the amateur National Youth Theatre. He immediately got cast as “third fairy on the left” in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

After the play’s run ended, he stayed on at the theater answering the stage door phone. “I sat in a tiny cubbyhole taking calls to and from quite famous people, alone in the building and alone in London.”

He avoided cracking up by winning a job as tea-maker in the wardrobe department of Olivier’s National Theatre. From this glamorous position, so close to the roar of the greasepaint if not to the smell of the crowd, he advanced to drama school, to “Hamlet” and now to poor Richard Herncastle of Priestley’s “Lost Empires.”

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Until recently, Priestley was out of fashion. Once one of England’s most popular novelists and playwrights, by the 1960s he seemed lightweight, “suburban” and middle-class. In the Thatcher years, though, comfortable virtue is prized over unsettling experiments, and Priestley’s well-made work has been widely revived. Perhaps his best known play is “The Good Companions,” also about the life of touring actors. “Priestley is a very accessible writer,” Firth says.

“ ‘Lost Empires’ took a solid year to film,” he recalls. “Not on and off--more like, on and on. I’d never toured in a repertory company, so making this was a little like rep for me--and also a little like a life sentence.”

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