Up hill, 'cross moor and down dale

Television - Andrew Billen flinches from the melodrama of a modern <em>Wuthering Heights</em>

Last week, the Radio Times listed the returning Monarch of the Glen as "drama" and branded Sally Wainwright's Sparkhouse "melodrama". "Melodrama" is not a word you hear much these days, and I wondered what on earth the new programme (9pm, Sundays, BBC1) had done to warrant the label. Indeed, I pondered what the word even meant in a television landscape where at least half the action that reaches the screen is as melodramatic as it is dramatic. But now I have seen it, and I understand everything. The modern definition of "melodrama" is something that Victoria Wood would want to parody on her Christmas special.

You can see what the writer, Wainwright, intends. She has, after all, written something of a comparably hysterical tone before - ITV's cultish At Home with the Braithwaites. The premise of that series, in which a Yorkshire matriarch wins the Lottery but keeps the news from her needy family in order to set up a charity, immediately set it in a field a couple of acres beyond belief. Yet the emotions released were real, raw and funny, and England's eternal demand for commentaries about the divisions of class and region was satisfied.

The second reason why you understand Wainwright's general aim is thanks to a scene early on in which Sparkhouse's leading woman reads her co-star an extract from Wuthering Heights. Young Andrew may be too dim to realise what plot he's been trapped in, but we are not. We can relax into our armchairs secure in the knowledge that we are about to witness some of the worst possible weather, even more rushing around hill and dale, and a heavy-handed fable about our two nations.

Teenagers Carol Bolton and Andrew Lawton have been pals for decade, rolling around the moorlands of Hebden Bridge so vigorously that their friendship has turned to sexual love. At core, they are made of the same flint but they inhabit opposite social poles. Carol comes from a dregs-like farm labourer's family. Her father beats her. Her mother deserts him, whisked away in a BMW for the promise of life with a fancy-goods salesman in Oldham, leaving Carol to look after the youngest member of the family, "young Lisa". Andrew, in contrast, is the middle-class son of a doctor and a school teacher, neither of whom approves of the match at all. One sees their point. On a visit to their home, Carol's careless cigarette sets the whole house alight ("spark" plus "house" equals melodrama).

In an attempt to thwart their romance, Dr Bolton abuses patient confidentiality by telling Andrew that Young Lisa is actually Carol's child, and that she gave birth at the age of 12. But Andrew forgives Carol, who has passed herself off as a virgin, when she divulges the terrible double secret that she was raped by her own father. Nevertheless, for some reason, he does not turn up for their secret wedding and Carol takes an axe to the family Volvo in revenge, leaving Andrew to go up to university, to much general relief - until the Christmas vac comes around.

With such a fantastical plot, it is perhaps harsh to complain that the characters are unrealistic. They are meant, in part, to be cartoons and it is to the credit of the cast that they remain at all rounded. As Andrew's father, Nicholas Farrell turns in his usual, excellent impression of a man fraying the end of his own tether. Alun Armstrong, as Carol's dad, is a monster, but a sad one. Joseph McFadden as Andrew has yet to quite let rip, but there is, despite the layers of make-up, no doubting Sarah Smart's feral appeal as his girlfriend. Then again, Smart has form not only as the lesbian loser Virginia Braithwaite but also as Catherine Linton in a recent TV Wuthering Heights.

I confess, however, to distaste for the way these cartoons are also class caricatures. The middle-class GP has had an affair: of course. His wife (the brilliant Celia Imrie) sees her home burning down as a chance to get a new kitchen: materialist bitch. Armstrong shits with the door open: what a prole. Nor is there any point in expecting nuances from the dialogue: Carol, when not poetically asking Andrew to join her "up moors" to "celebrate storm", used the pick-up line: "I've got a Land Rover outside - you want a shag?" Mother Lawton, on the other hand, is so refined, she is not certain what "takes it up the arse means". The cast issue various warnings to one another - "You stay away from my son" - and make fanciful promises: "I'll wait for you for ever if I have to." Victoria, charge your pen.

It may just be the coming of autumn, but I have a chill feeling in my bones that the nation is going to go big on this stormy three-parter, and that I'll be on the outside, like Heathcliff at the window, wondering why. The unpleasantness is one thing, the silliness another. Melodrama she wrote, and I wish she hadn't.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times