The star of this series, Nick Berry, made his name in the BBC soap EastEnders, was lured away by ITV to do Heartbeat, then got lured back by the BBC. Harbour Lights, made by Berry's own production company, was the result. Set on the English south coast town of Bridehaven (actually West Bay near Bridport in Dorset), it revolved around Harbour Master Mike Nicholls (Berry), ran for just two series (a total of 16 one-hour episodes) and is notable for perhaps the biggest personality transplant in TV drama history.
Series 1 was a comfortable family comedy-drama, with a cast of lovable characters and storylines about depressed pensioners and bungling bigamists, and just a hint of crime-drama edge to keep the audience awake on a Sunday evening. Ratings weren't great though, and when series 2 arrived the character of the show had changed almost beyond recognition - all the lovable characters had gone, the new villains were really nasty, and people were getting threatened, beaten and shot. That didn't work either, and six episodes later it was all over.
Harbour Lights was great in theory - an A-list (in Britain) star, fine supporting cast, fantastic location (England's Jurassic Coast), a boats-and-harbour situation that had proved popular in the earlier BBC drama Howard's Way. The problem was that it just wasn't very well done. The dialogue was OK, but the stories were clunky and the production clunkier, with editing that at times seemed random and space-filler shots that looked as if they'd come from a Dorset Tourist Board video. There also wasn't quite as much on-the-water action as you might have expected from a location-shot, marine-themed drama. It was panned by many critics (the Guardian newspaper snootily dismissed one episode as "a minor essay on provincial small-mindedness") and viewers stayed away in droves.
And yet... Perhaps because of its low-budget appearance, Harbour Lights captured the true essence of the English seaside better than anything else on TV - a basically drab place full of people trying to eke out a year's worth of living by selling tat to a declining summer trade, its working population swelled by transients, many of them on the run from family or worse. In Series 1 at least, there was real warmth and community spirit in the face of this adversity, driven by the characters: Tony Simpson, the local Mr Big with his seaside rock factory and tacky amusement arcade, Aunt Nicholls, the empathetic, seen-it-all seaside hotel proprietor, the Blade family, dirt-poor and scraping a precarious (and sometime questionable) living - they all worked well, and added up to more than the sum of their parts. They make it worth a look if you get a chance.
West Bay has a new TV identity now - it's the setting for Broadchurch, ITV's BAFTA-winning, super-high production quality crime drama starring David Tennant and Olivia Coleman, which has just (summer 2014) finished filming its second series. Broadchurch launched 14 years after Harbour Lights (1999 - 2013), but in terms of atmosphere the gap is more like half a century. Bridehaven was a last relic of the post-war Britain of the 1960s and 70s, a place that catered for the old, where kids didn't have mobile phones and the Internet was still for the switched-on few. Broadchurch is firmly 21st century, its version of West Bay populated by aspirational young couples with Facebook friends, smartphones and new-build properties, a place where no-one (as the series 1 story demonstrates) really knows anyone else. I confess that I'd like to have lived in Bridehaven; Broadchurch I'd rather avoid.