Acorn Media // 2004 // 713 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // January 12th, 2012
"Like a couple of big kids arguing all the bloody time."
It seems like there were about a billion Christmas movies on TV this past yule season. So far, I don't think any of them have been tapped for regular series status. Then again, I don't think any of them fared as well as Christmas Lights, which lit up nearly 12 million TV screens in England one Christmas bright, making spirits at ITV merry enough to order up Northern Lights, which continued the adventures of two bickering Manchester buds. Acorn rounds up the original movie -- and everything that followed -- in Northern Lights: The Complete Collection.
Northern Lights: The Complete Collection features two TV movies and two series:
* Christmas Lights -- For Colin Armstrong (Robson Green, Grafters) and best bud and neighbor Howard Scott (Mark Benton, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), 'tis the season to trip the lights fanatic. The electric warfare, however, could be more about Howard's promotion, which makes him Colin's boss at the van company.
* Northern Lights -- The six-episode series opens with Colin on thin ice at work over botched paperwork and alcohol in a urine sample. Other adventures include Colin's gig as a cabbie, Colin's and Howard's high school reunion, Colin's obsessive stint as a football (soccer) coach, a family illness, and a trip to the countryside.
* City Lights -- What misadventures could you get into while shopping for venetian blinds? Let's see...Colin and Howard are marked for death by a gang leader after witnessing a brutal murder in a pub. They and their families go into hiding in London, which could be awfully rough on their marriages.
* Clash of the Santas -- Howard pinch hits as Santa in an emergency, which wins him a trip to Lithuania to compete for the Golden Beard, given to the world's jolliest St. Nick. Colin becomes a very bad elf to come along, and ends up stumbling onto a terror plot by an anti-capitalism group.
Christmas Lights followed the Armstrongs and the Scotts through two years of their lives, using the battle of the Christmas lights to introduce the bickering Colin and Howard. Colin is a van driver with a loving family (and an amorous wife). He's loud, boisterous, and immature. Colin is content with football, beer, and an active married sex life -- until Howard gets the promotion. The quieter Howard has been following Colin all his life, working for the same company, marrying the sister of Colin's wife Jackie, and moving in next door. They still remember bickering about a toy car in a cereal box when they were kids, and they're still likely to have similar battles today. Their wives are frequently angry at them -- until someone else is, which brings out fierce loyalty.
That may sound a lot like The Honeymooners (and the show's producer likens it to a pair of Ralph's and Ed's British counterparts, The Likely Lads), but there's a current of everyday drama in Christmas Lights and Northern Lights -- with storylines involving cancer, a father-in-law's illness, job loss, and a long-lost relative. The undercurrent of Colin's uneasiness over his future also adds a resonance, especially in rough economic times.
That doesn't last, however. City Lights attempts to insert the goofy but ultimately identifiable Colin and Howard into a six-part crime thriller. It seems absurd to have a family that can't get through a night without rows that wake up the neighbors in witness protection -- and there are some very funny moments, including a chase through a hotel that disproves a lot of crime thriller cliches. However, it doesn't engage in the same way as the simpler stories of Northern Lights. At times, it reminded me of Psych, with Colin and Howard arguing immaturely and riffing about Magnum P.I. and Doctor Who trivia while in deadly peril. Ultimately, the six-parter goes on too long, and a few violent bits (not to mention an adultery storyline) ruin the flow.
Clash of the Santas can be funny, particularly with some scene-stealing bits from a lecherous Welsh Santa. However, it's usually just silly.
Picture and sound quality on the recent series is solid, and some of the snowy footage set in Lithuania is simply beautiful, picture-postcard stuff. A behind-the-scenes featurette includes spoilers, but also looks at wardrobe and the continuing use of chromakey in British television.
You may be thinking this sounds like family fare, but be forewarned that Colin and Jackie do make love a lot, with glimpses of bare buns and the like. Moreover, the gangland murder that Colin and Howard witness is a grim, graphic one.
While it's normally good for TV shows to take chances, I have a feeling that -- in the case of Northern Lights -- the tried-and-true would have made for a more enduring series. Fans of Robson Green, who has the childlike man character down to a T, could enjoy this a lot. However, the shift of tone means that Northern Lights: The Complete Collection sputters at the halfway mark. I loved Christmas Lights and Northern Lights, but found City Lights and Clash of the Santas only okay.
It starts out strong, but ends up guilty.
Review content copyright © 2012 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 713 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Christmas Lights
* IMDb: Northern Lights
* IMDb: City Lights
* IMDb: Clash of the Santas