The star of this series, Nick Berry, made his name in the BBC's EastEnders, and was then lured away by ITV, where he had a successful run as a 1960s village policeman in the Sunday night family drama Heartbeat. The BBC then lured him back, and created Harbour Lights as a vehicle for him, obviously feeling that an ultra-safe family format – a present-day Heartbeat with Berry still as a strong-but-silent authority figure, only a harbourmaster instead of a copper - was the right way to go.
The result was a show that had a good cast, an attractive location (the small south coast resort of "Bridehaven", actually West Bay near Bridport in Dorset) and even some half-decent storylines. But it also somehow managed to lack any real flair or spark, partly due, perhaps, to that desire to play ultra-safe with the family-drama credentials, but also, perhaps, because they'd spent so much money luring Nick Berry back that they didn't have a vast amount left for production.
There is an upside to this though, namely that by being a bit drab and evidently low-cost, Harbour Lights managed to achieve the most accurate portrayal of small-town British seaside life ever seen on TV, showing Bridehaven as a place of tacky amusement arcades, half-empty cafes and not an awful lot to do, just like the real thing.
This series-opener episode hits the ground running in this respect with a beach beauty contest of almost unbelievable tackiness, sponsored by the local seaside rock manufacturer (series comedy bad-guy Tony Simpson), and entered by Kelly Blade, teenage daughter of series comedy bad-family The Blades. Set against this is the much more serious back-story of how Mike Nicholls (Berry) came to take up the job of Harbour Master – in flashbacks we see that he was the commander of a Royal Navy patrol boat, and that his best friend (and Bridehaven contemporary) Pete died, through his own (Pete's) recklessness but nevertheless under Mike's command, causing Mike to leave the Navy and come home to pickup the pieces.
We also meet Pete's sister Jane (Berry's former EastEnder colleague Matilda Ziegler), who blames Mike for her brother's death, café proprietor Elvis (whose 'shut' sign reads 'Elvis has left the building'), and Mike's auntie (and adoptive mother), hotel keeper "Aunt" Nicholls. Also on display are the rest of the Blade family – good son Steve, bad son Jason, skiver dad George (played by stand-up comedy legend Freddy "Parrot-Face" Davies) and long-suffering mum Rita, who's about to suffer a bit more as she's facing a theft charge for stealing seaside rock from Tony Simpson's factory to make ends meet. Plus local police officer Melanie, played by Tina Hobley en route to (much) better things as Sister Chrissie in Holby City.
There is plot – Pete is buried with full Naval honours and some angst-ridden interplay between Mike and Jane (with some family-safe sexual tension thrown in), Mike persuades Councillor Simpson, against his judgement, to employ good-son Steve Blade as deputy harbourmaster, and Jane's 7-year-old son Jake stows away on a speedboat and is rescued by Mike, who takes the flak from Jane for, well, not dying instead of her brother. On paper it looks like there's quite a lot going on, but Harbour Lights somehow manages to make it all seem uneventful, just another couple of dreamy days on the Dorset coast. But then that's the show's charm.moreless