SparkhouseWuthering Heights remake, Richard Armitage, Sarah Smart, Joseph McFadden, Alun Armstrong, BBC miniseries.


BBC's "remake" of Wuthering Heights with an interesting twist.

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Joe McFadden  carol - sarah smart  Richard Armitage
L-R: Joe McFadden as Andrew, Sarah Smart as Carol, Richard Armitage as John.

Sparkhouse Photo Album >>

The whole premise of Sparkhouse sounded fascinating when I first heard of it: Adapt the Emily Brontë novel so it's set in contemporary times, but switch the genders—selfish Cathy is now a male, and brooding Heathcliff is now a female. How would such a reversal (along with the modernized setting) play out? Pretty well, as it happens.

Wuthering Heights connnection: In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I've never actually read the original Brontë novel. But I've seen the various film and TV adaptations of it, and while it's not my favorite story (too depressing), I've always been drawn to it. In a nutshell, the original tale is about two kids who have an almost otherworldly, soulful connection with each other. The boy (Heathcliff) is rough, wild, and can't seem to get a break in life. The girl (Cathy) decides to marry a rich local boy, even though her love for Heathcliff never wanes. Heathcliff turns bitter and angry as a result of being rejected by Cathy. Commence heartbreak and a bittersweet end for the misguided lovers. (Yep, that's depressing!)

     
L-R: A symbol of their love scratched on a wall, Andrew (Joe McFadden), Carol looking tense, Carol's dad (Alun Armstrong) beats up Carol.

The Story of Sparkhouse: In this miniseries, the rough kid who can't get a break is teenaged Carol (Sarah Smart). She suffers with an angry, alcoholic, abusive dad, a trampy mom, and a broken-down sheep farm (called Sparkhouse). Her only solace in life is her little sister Lisa, and her love for Andrew (Joseph McFadden), who is from a neighboring farm. These two have an almost psychic bond, and have been inseparable since they were kids.

However, Andrew's parents are snobs who have always disliked Carol's influence over Andrew and consider her not "good enough" for their precious son. But despite such opposition, Andrew and Carol remain steadfast to each other—until an unexpected turn of events separates them.

      
L-R: Some girl chats up Andrew in a bar, John and Carol discuss farm business, John is shy around Carol, Andrew looks distressed.

After some years apart, Andrew seems to have moved on to a comfortable new life, career, and relationship, while Carol's misfortunes and struggles continue to mount. Realizing that she cannot change Andrew's choices, she seeks the aid of loyal but painfully shy farmhand John (Richard Armitage) to help her run the family farm. However, even though he's supposedly "moved on" with his life, Andrew reacts badly to all of this, causing strife for his family as well as for Carol.

    
L-R: Carol waiting at their favorite haunt, Andrew has a new relationship, Carol's dad, Andrew gets advice from his father.

How Sparkhouse Differs From Wuthering Heights: This is what can be called a "loose" interpretation—it's more "inspired" by Wuthering Heights than a strict adaptation. Switching the genders of the Heathcliff/Cathy characters is an especially interesting twist. In the original story, we see Cathy as fickle and selfish, but have some understanding for her actions as well—what kind of life would she have expected if she had married penniless Heathcliff? But in this story, "Cathy" is now Andrew, who comes from a comfortably middle-class family and can avail himself of a good education. He doesn't need his "Heathcliff" (Carol) to be financially well-off. So what separates him from Carol, and what motivates everyone's decisions? Sparkhouse handles this in a unique way.

   
L-R: A clean-shaven John is hesitant to be hopeful, Carol talks with John, John and Carol in another discussion, Andrew confronts John.

A Less Brutal "Heathcliff": In the original Bronte story, Heathcliff behaves rather despicably after he loses his true love Cathy. Fortunately, our "Heathcliff" (Carol) is not quite so bitter and nasty. While she does some questionable things (including a disturbing off-camera incident which echoes an event in the Bronte novel), she is for the most part a likeable character who usually treats those in her life with some degree of decency. It's sometimes a little difficult to reconcile her occasional "juvenile delinquent" traits with her more noble side, however.

   richard armitage  
L-R: Carol confronts her brutish dad, Andrew stews in his car, John looks pretty good when he's had a shave and haircut, a teenaged Lisa.

Does Sparkhouse conclude in the same bittersweet way as Wuthering Heights? I'm not going to say much, other than to hint that any show based on this classic novel is unlikely to have a fairy-tale happily-ever-after ending. But, considering that the "Heathcliff" character here (Carol) is more pragmatic and less brutal than her male counterpart in the Bronte novel, don't expect everything to be completely grim either.

     
L-R: Carol reacts with distress, Andrew is happy to see Carol, Carol all dressed up, John and Carol.

The Cast of Sparkhouse: I must confess that I discovered Sparkhouse while searching for more works of North & South star Richard Armitage. (A review for North & South can be found here, and you can find out more about Armitage's other performances on this page.) So it's only fitting to mention his performance first: He's wonderful. I didn't expect to care for a fictional character this much, but this one is such a dear, sweet fellow, you can't help but fall in love with him. John is shy, kind, endearing, occasionally bumbling but also capable and surprisingly wise, and Armitage's performance is masterful. (It must be emphasized that this is a supporting role—he gets plenty of time onscreen, but is not the star here.)

I had never seen Sarah Smart in anything prior to this, and am very impressed with her performance. She's got an unconventional beauty which suits this role—I'd have hated to see the character played by a typical Hollywood glamour girl. She brings both strength and vulnerability to the "bad girl" part of Carol, and lets us see a little bit of Carol's "dangerous" side. I look forward to seeing more of Sarah Smart's work in the future! She's outstanding.

Joseph McFadden is of these extremely attractive "pretty" guys (with the loveliest eyelashes), and portrays Andrew sympathetically. This is a character who has many redeeming qualities, but is conflicted and pressured by others' expectations. Fans of McFadden will definitely enjoy seeing him in this role, since he gets plenty of opportunities to show a range of emotions. Be aware that you might see more of McFadden than you anticipate: He is briefly seen semi-nude on a few occasions.

The familiar faces of Nicholas Farrell, Celia Imrie, and Alun Armstrong all give solid performances. Farrell and Imrie are great as the hypocritical, bickering snob parents of Andrew, and Armstrong portrays Carol's dad as the most revolting, vile and unappealing person imaginable.

Final Thoughts and Cautions: This miniseries was voted one of the most popular on the BBC in 2002, and for good reason. It's romantic and dramatic and the pace never slows down. However, because of some occasional profanity, brief nudity (Joseph McFadden's backside) and a few quick (but not too terribly explicit) sex scenes, it might not be suitable for children or more sensitive adults.

Sparkhouse on DVD: Finally, this excellent miniseries is available in April 2006. Many suspect that the impetus to release this DVD was in no small part due to actor Richard Armitage's growing popularity after his groundbreaking performance in North & South. It's not difficult to get this impression when the BBC web site has been showing a photo of Armitage—instead of Sparkhouse's leading man Joe McFadden—on its DVD ordering page. (Photo on left.)

This miniseries was shown in three parts, with each episode being slightly less than an hour. At this time it is only available in the UK, but North American customers can order it from Amazon.co.uk and view it with a region-free DVD player (or use region-free software on their computer's DVD drive). Learn how to adapt your existing DVD player to play disks from the UK (or find other cheap or free workarounds) here. (Link opens to new page.)

North American viewers may have trouble understanding some of the thick accents in this production, so if subtitles or closed captions are available on this DVD, it might be a good idea to turn them on.

Sparkhouse Photo Album >>

"In what other programs can we see Richard Armitage?" Fans who are swooning over the actor's performance in North & South (and now as John in Sparkhouse) keep on asking this question, so I felt compelled to make this special page, which gives short reviews of some of his other works available on DVD.

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