Two rite-of-passage TV dramas explore path to adulthood

Masterpiece Theatre: Lost Empires PBS, Sunday, 9-11 p.m. (and Sundays through March 8, 9-10 p.m.). Stars: Colin Firth and John Castle. Writer: Ian Curteis, from the novel by J.B. Priestley. Director: Alan Grint. American Playhouse: The Prodigious Hickey PBS, Monday, 9-10 p.m. Stars: Zach Galligan and Edward Herrmann.

For most boys, adolescence is a period of learning ... and yearning. For many, it's an awkward age of marking time in school or early jobs, gathering experiences in living that will either ease them gently, or catapult them rapidly, into adulthood - ready or not.

Well, PBS presents two dramas dealing with a range of adolescent experiences Sunday and Monday. Take your choice.

The Sunday premi`ere of a seven-part series on ``Masterpiece Theatre'' lowers the curtain on the British music hall as it raises the curtain on a young Yorkshireman's coming of age.

Richard Herncastle, an aspiring artist, joins his uncle's magic act as it tours throughout Britain. Adapted from a J.B. Priestley novel, the drama goes behind the glamour of variety theater to uncover its grittiness as well. In a series of encounters with women, Richard learns similar aspects of love and lust.

Unlike many ``Masterpiece Theatres,'' this one does not have a strong story line but makes its impact by relating young Richard's growth to emotional maturity. Herncastle makes his discoveries about vaudeville and life simultaneously - on stage and in dressing rooms, boarding houses, and a bordello. Throughout the series there are many sexual encounters portrayed with graphic near-explicitness.

Filmed on location throughout the British Isles, ``Lost Empires'' gives theater buffs an opportunity to see some of the music halls that still survive.

Part 1 requires patience. But the series comes to life in later episodes, as it offers a nicely shaded portrait of an era in demise, with fine performances by Colin Firth as the maturing Herncastle, and by John Castle as his fearsome uncle. For me ``Lost Empires'' (``Empires'' refers to the name of so many variety theaters) is an ambivalent pleasure - filled with the joyful agony of adolescence intermingled with the pain of a dying art form.

``Animal House ... 1905'' is how ``American Playhouse'' describes ``The Prodigious Hickey,'' which actually delivers much more literate fun than ``Animal House'' grossness. Reminiscent of ``Goodbye Mr. Chips'' or ``Tom Brown's School Days,'' it digs below the amiable surface of boarding school life to explore the rites of passage of a group of fun-loving boys.

Based on Owen Johnson's classic tales from New Jersey's Lawrenceville School, stories which first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1908, the rebellious and resourceful William (``Hickey'') Hicks is played with with charm, lovability, and believability by Zach Galligan. Edward Herrmann makes a tough, kindly headmaster, determined to prove to the boys that, in life as in school, they will have to pay for their misdemeanors.

This drama is a battle of wits between youthful levity and seasoned authority.

And it makes clear that, though the young may take temporary losses, they will win in the end - only to discover that their turbulent adolescence has evolved into respectful maturity.

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