The Lake District may seem a tranquil setting for the man who made `Cracker'. But his new drama is riddled with conflict, just like the man himself.
Assuming they know their television, the motorists passing on the lakeside road, or the hikers who stride blinkingly on to the set from the footpath, can tell that there's a prime-time series in production. Exquisite rural setting - in this case fells, peaks and pikes lowering beyond the still depths of Ullswater - plus swarm of emergency service vehicles, equals 10 million viewers on Sunday evening. Today they're doing a key drowning scene, with professional divers in wetsuits who have been engaged to fish the corpses of children out of the deep.

So, a big day for the kids. For the grown-up actors making The Lakes, a BBC drama series about urban scallies who work in the Lake District hotels and incur the wrath of the locals by preying on their daughters, it's also more interesting than usual, because the writer is on set. And not just any old writer. Jimmy McGovern, much-garlanded progenitor of Cracker and Hillsborough, is round the back of the boathouse, leaning on one of the ambulances, smoking, and looking thoroughly out of context in urban smart-casuals.

He confesses that he finds film sets excruciating, even if, on the only ones he ever visits, they're saying his lines.

"I should be on a set more, and then I would know the grammar and the etiquette. You're telling the actor how good he is, and the actor is standing there very dutifully, knowing that there are people over there wanting him immediately, but he's not impolite enough to tell you that; and then he excuses himself and goes, and you realise what a stupid prick you've been."

Not that McGovern is paranoid or anything. During the making of Hillsborough he suspected that the police, cast as the villains of the piece, were tapping his phone. "Total paranoia," he confesses. He tells a story of being in the gents of the pub he drinks in on Friday nights, "and this great big guy comes in, you know, huge guy, unmistakably a copper, and he says to me, `Jimmy?' Yeah? `McGovern?' I'm absolutely shitting myself. Great big guy. He says, `I've got a message for you: phone Colin immediately.' Colin is an old mate of mine. Go to phone him, and he's got tickets for me for a game. And that's all the message was. And I turn round to this guy and say thanks very much, and he explains, `I'm an old mate of Colin's.'" Harmless really. Except that the radar that makes McGovern so good at his job was on the right track: "Of course, he was a copper."

He is visibly buoyed up by the suggestion that we repair to a more familiar habitat in the village. "I'll have a pint of Boddys, please," he says. It's the first of four. McGovern is not one to spurn alcohol during interviews. He's not the spurning type. He once made a visit to Dublin to promote his film Priest, during a period of intense overwork after the success of Cracker, when green lights simultaneously flared for sundry projects and he was needed on set here, for interviews there, for deadlines everywhere.

"I was totally fucked, and we got back to Dublin airport and we're going to fly home, which I'm terrified about anyway, and I was stuck in the middle of this airport with these two big bags and taken short. So I lug these two big bags to the toilet, get there in time, had a shit, looked down and it's jet black. And I'm feeling like shite. I'm feeling as though I'm going to die. So I stagger out, find Eileen [his wife] and say, `Eileen, go on, get me to hospital. I've just done this jet-black shit.'" She said, `Jimmy, you've had 10 pints of Guinness.'"

The black stuff. The phrase was patented nearly 20 years ago by Alan Bleasdale, Liverpool's other small-screen big hitter. But it could just as well describe the drama that issues from McGovern's imagination, with its dark understanding of the Manichean psyche, its intimacy with the curlicues of Catholic guilt, its knowledge that animal instincts pulse beneath the epidermis we call civility. In McGovern's obituaries it will one day be written that he managed to cook up prime-time drama out of these complex ingredients, to cram them into cop shows and soaps and into apparently polite series like The Lakes.

That imagination got a perfect start in childhood. There were already four older siblings when he was born in 1949, and four more would later be squeezed into a two-up, two-down in a working-class, largely Irish district of Liverpool. Young Jimmy scarcely spoke till he was eight. He still avoids radio and television interviews because of a now-imperceptible stammer. Perhaps he inherited his misgivings about the spoken word from his mother, who got his names the wrong way round at his christening. His first name is officially Stanley.

McGovern has refrained from mining his own upbringing for material - although he is currently writing a film for the BBC called Liam, about an eight-year-old growing up in Thirties Liverpool. But the jigsaw pieces of his adult life are scattered through his work. His experiences as a teacher in a large secondary school, and later as a parent embroiled in the saga of opting out, went into Hearts and Minds. The deplorable gambling habit was given to Fitz in Cracker. The lapsed Catholic's inquisitiveness about human motive weaves through everything he has ever written.

Even his forays into history - a drama about the Gunpowder Plot, and a script in development about Mary Queen of Scots - have a popish underpinning. "I can often spot convent-educated women," he said to me on a previous occasion. "That will make me sound stupid, I know, but actually I've done that many a time, and the subject hasn't even got on to Catholicism." We sit there in the pub and, between us, we count up the instances in his work of key plot twists that hinge on a priest being unable to break the seal of confession. I say I hope there's not another one in The Lakes. "Well, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed."

You'd think that The Lakes would find him parting company with the handrail of autobiography. A couple of years ago I interviewed McGovern when he was fresh out of a meeting with the head of drama serials at the BBC. He had just been pitching the idea for The Lakes. It didn't sound very inner-city, very McGovern. There's not a lot of Catholic guilt in Grasmere. And yet it turns out not only that McGovern was once one of those scallies washing dishes in a Cumbrian hotel, but also that his wife Eileen is one of those local girls.

McGovern's lead character is also hooked on gambling, a vice that had seduced his creator long before he came up to the Lakes as a callow teenager. In rural exile from the betting shops, it wasn't so easy to feed the habit, at least not at first. "You had to go into Ambleside, which was four miles away, to have a bet. But then, tragedy of tragedies, you find out that you can have a phone account."

The habit grew much more serious later on, with the newly wed McGoverns back in Liverpool and Jimmy, in a story that's the centre-piece of all the profiles, hitting rock bottom by spending his odd-jobber's pay packet on a crocked nag.

He caught the bug young, at "seven or eight".

"The community was a gambling community. It was just part of working- class culture in the inner city: the football, the gambling, the booze - that's what men did."

His father was one of those men, "but he was really controlled. Very responsible man, my dad." Why wasn't his fifth child? "I don't know. I think addictive personalities are addictive personalities. I'm not massively addictive, but I am addictive, I know that. And if you're into a thing like gambling you're fucked."

What about the fags? How many a day? "That's gone up because I've been under pressure. [And no wonder: as he speaks, a movie script about transplants, called Heart, with Christopher Eccleston and Saskia Reeves, is also about to go into production.] About 30 now. I can get by on 20." He has tried giving up, slapping on the nicotine patches. "But you get bad dreams with the patches - they're really amazing things." As for the drink ... well, you know about the drink.

In the Lakes, he and his mates didn't just fritter their earnings away on horses. They played football, hotel against hotel, with McGovern on the wing or up front. "I was like lightning. Don't get me wrong, I was never that good, but I was quick." Nearly 30 years on, one game lives on in the memory. "We played a hotel from Ambleside, and God knows why, but it got nasty. I'm small now but I was even smaller then. It got nasty and I squared up to this really big guy, and he just gripped me in his really amazing grip, so fierce the grip, he just kept my head down, and afterwards all the lads said he was twice ready to hit, but he didn't hit me. Anyway, about a week or so later we ended up in this pub and there was pictures all over the wall. He'd sparred with Cassius Clay! He was a great boxer, this guy. And he had signed messages from Cassius Clay. And I thought, if he'd hit me I'd be dead."

The more peaceable things that people do in the Lakes attracted the incipient writer's attention. He mucked about on boats once or twice, attempted the odd fell, and dabbled in Wordsworth, whom, unsurprisingly for someone who gave us the Grants of Brookside, he didn't fancy. "People tell me he was a great poet, but with a really great poet you never feel that he's at the mercy of rhythm and rhyme. He makes the rhythm and rhyme become his slave, and I don't think Wordsworth ever did."

It's no shock to discover that his favourite poet is the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. "Read `The Wind Hover'. Best 14 lines ever written."

McGovern's own secret of good writing is: "I never think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as a storyteller. And the story is paramount. And you've got to tell that story, and you tell that story in the most simple, economical way possible, and you do not show off. I know writers who show off in the telling of the story, and it's bollocks. It certainly happened early on in my career, in Brookside and things. But not now."

When McGovern's work began to find an audience, first in the theatres of Liverpool and then with Brookside, the compulsive gambling seems to have subsided. His first cheque for a Brookside script was pounds 475. "I thought, fuck me, this is phenomenal money. But I never raised my living standards at all, and the bank balance totted up, totted up, totted up. In 1984 we actually moved into a semi, and the semi was something like pounds 49,000."

It's an obvious point to make, but he now takes risks in his work rather than in the betting shop, and they have given the edge to his writing. Success may have civilised his suits and eradicated the racism that he argues is indivisible from poverty. But there is an enduring rawness. He must be the only leading dramatist in this country who, when explaining how tortuously his mind works, uses a story about his bowel movements as an illustration.

His only notable coyness is reserved for the bedroom. The unmodish lack of nudity in his work is partly a matter of tasteful restraint, partly the result of complex, Fitz-like mental machinations. In the script of Priest, the point at which the young priest and his boyfriend have a long and unprecedently frank love scene, McGovern merely indicated that they have "urgent and passionate sex".

"Fifteen years ago I might have gone into how they make love, but the people I work with are predominantly young women. You do not want to sit there discussing your script with a gang of young women; subconsciously in their mind is, you've always wanted them to take it up the bum."

God, it must be hell being Jimmy McGovern.

`The Lakes' begins on BBC 1 on 14 September.