‘Northern Lights’ shines on DVD

Courtesy of Acorn Media

Robson Green and Mark Benton make for an infectiously entertaining duo on the popular Northern Lights TV series that played on UK televisions a few years ago and has newly arrived on DVD from Acorn Media.

The four-disc set features all 12 episodes from the series, plus Christmas Lights, which started it all, and Clash of the Santas, which ended it all. The show is an unusual treat; it can’t be classified as strictly comedic, although it’s often hilarious, and it can’t be pigeonholed as a TV drama, although it’s often heartbreaking. Northern Lights and its several incarnations are wholly original, depicting good people in sometimes difficult situations.

Colin (Green) and Howard (Benton) are dedicated friends who have lived within a stone’s throw of each other their entire life. Their wives — Jackie (Nicola Stephenson) and Pauline (Sian Reeves) — are sisters, and they all enjoy each other’s company. On the surface, they are two families with impossibly positive outlooks on life. Their greatest struggles are determining the best Christmas lights for their front lawns.

In Christmas Lights, a 90-minute TV movie, Colin and Howard are so inseparable that they live next to each other and even work together at the local depot, delivering packages and taking orders from the big boss, Eric (Keith Clifford), who happens to be Jackie and Pauline’s father and the third member of their carpool. Everything is moving along swimmingly until Eric decides to retire, and the depot suddenly changes overnight. Howard is tapped for a promotion, and now Colin finds himself stuck with the laborers, earning less and falling behind his best friend.

In a fit of jealousy, Colin wages war against Howard, trying to beat him in just about anything in life. From the Christmas decorations to their family cars, the two become sworn enemies and come close to destroying their lifelong relationship. This tete-a-tete continues in the two TV series, coined Northern Lights  and City Lights, and then finishes with Clash of the Santas. All the while, co-creators Jeff Pope and Bob Mills guide their antics through a tapestry of comedy and drama. There are many pratfalls and funny moments of genuine humor, but then the show grounds itself in the difficult occurrences of everyday life.

Howard is diagnosed with testicular cancer, for example. Colin and Jackie struggle to pay the bills. For every laugh, there’s a tear. And it’s refreshing to see a TV show where male characters can honestly express their feelings. Colin and Howard are so close (even when they’re at each other’s throats) that it’s not uncommon for one to break down and start crying. The quiet scenes between the two characters are where Northern Lights shines.

The acting is great, from Green to Benton, Stephenson and Reeves. There’s a real chemistry that is achieved among these two couples, and it’s not hard to imagine that there’s real people out there in similar circumstances. The show would probably have been a one-off wonder if Green and Benton weren’t so likable.

Some of the plot points are too convenient, and the drama occasionally borders on overly sentimental. But each of the actors believes in the show, and their dedication to fleshing out these characters is on fine, fine display. It’s a pity that the series ended after only 12 episodes and two movies. We learn a lot from Colin and Howard, but there seems to be room for growth (and more fighting).

Luckily, Acorn Media has preserved the entire franchise on one DVD collection, even adding in a nice behind-the-scenes feature on the making of Northern Lights. If you missed the shows when they aired on ITV or BBC America, it’s time to meet Colin and Howard, two likable guys with a penchant for hilarious drama and serious comedy.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Christmas Lights, Northern Lights, City Lights, Clash of the Santas

  • Co-created by Jeff Pope and Bob Mills

  • Starring Robson Green, Mark Benton, Nicola Stephenson and Sian Reeves

  • Running time: 713 minutes

  • 12 episodes, two movies on four discs

  • Bonus feature: Behind-the-scenes feature on Northern Lights

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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