'Cracker' author's new sex and drugs drama upsets Lakeland

A tale of lust and intrigue at Ullswater has upset locals, writes Ivan Waterman
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The Independent Online
The Lake District, beloved of hikers and day-trippers and long associated with Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, is to have its tranquil image transformed.

Jimmy McGovern, creator of hard-hitting television dramas Cracker and Hillsborough, is bringing sexual intrigue, drugs and violence to the shores of Ullswater in his latest near-the-knuckle series, The Lakes.

The result, say some locals, will be "the Darcy Effect" - a reference to the floods of tourists who swamped beauty spots used for the TV adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

The Friends of the Lakes, a conservation pressure group, fears that McGovern's tale of lust and love - supposedly based on his own youth - will lead to thousands of fans roaming the area.

The group's secretary, Ian Brodie, believes that McGovern's series, which will head BBC1's autumn Sunday night schedules, presents a "negative" image of the district.

He has complained to local newspapers and the BBC. "What we are concerned with is the countryside of Cumbria and how people can abuse that for their own ends," he said.

"We are disappointed that the BBC has not listened to our representations."

McGovern, the son of a Liverpool betting-shop manager, was once on the kitchen staff at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Grasmere. Now he is turning that experience into drama. He left his Merseyside council home to drift from job to job in the Lake District. Working at the Prince of Wales one summer, he fell in love with his future wife, Eileen, now the mother of his three children.

The anti-hero of his drama, says the film summary, is Danny Kavanagh, a Liverpudlian "scally, addictive gambler and philanderer" who escapes the dole queues and triggers "a series of events that lift the lid on a small Lakeland community seething with sexual intrigue, petty rivalries and guilt".

Danny falls for a local Catholic girl who is hoping to gain a university scholarship, gets her pregnant, rushes through a shotgun wedding and almost destroys their relationship through his gambling and petty theft.

The hotel chef is a womaniser who can barely keep his hands off any female who enters his kitchen. His wife is having an affair with the local primary-school headmaster. The kitchen porters spend their spare time taking drugs and having sex on the fellsides with local girls. Even the local priest is dragged into the plot when Kavanagh's mother-in-law takes a shine to him.

McGovern admits that, like Kavanagh, he gambled away the housekeeping on horse and greyhound racing and card games. His wife was pregnant when they married.

The main setting for his play is the Ullswater Hotel at Glenridding, an impressive slate residence in 18 acres of grounds with lawns reaching down to Ullswater. The owners were shown scripts and enthusiastically asked senior executives to retain the name of their hotel, to the dismay of the Friends.

The BBC responded by spending pounds 25,000 on decorating the property. New wallpaper and carpeting adorn the main lounge and a section of the conservatory has been rebuilt. One local said: "We were rather hoping they'd pop around and film in a few cottages. We could use a new coat of paint!"

Manchester-born John Simm, 26, who appeared as a vicious killer in Cracker, the comedy series Men of the World and the controversial youth cult film Boston Kickout, plays Kavanagh, while Emma Cunliffe, 23, from Chester, is his sweetheart, Emma Quinlan.

Ms Cunliffe is quick to defend McGovern against his Lakeland critics. "Nobody could possibly accuse somebody like Jimmy of being gratutious in any sense," she said. "He is a wonderful writer. I certainly wouldn't have got involved otherwise. It is a really wonderful story - in a sense his personal story."

McGovern said: "When I worked in the hotel there was a lot of drug- taking and sex. The drugs weren't heavy though. There was no cocaine, just marijuana and hash. Stuff which made you giggle. But that's what lads like me did: chased girls and got drunk and gambled.

"I think Danny is a sympathetic character. He has to be. There's more to him than just all of that. He's just very young and confused. But he's very passionate. Very passionate about everything.

"This is how it was in the Lake District. There are a lot of silly snobs about. That's all they are - they aren't elected either to say these things about 'standards'. Nobody votes for them."

Charles Pattinson, producer of The Lakes, and who also made the award- winning drama Our Friends in the North, feels much the same about objectors to the pounds 3.5m, five-part series. He is already planning a second series.

"Getting Jimmy was a great coup," he said. "This is a story he has wanted to tell for ages. People have this staid image of the Lakes and we will, without question, be creating some real interest in the area. I can't see anything wrong with that. All Creatures Great and Small was good for locals in the Yorkshire Dales and Ballykissangel is having a similar effect on tourism in Ireland.

"This is a rites-of-passage story, so it is largely about sex and guilt. Jimmy is a vigorous and rather uncompromising contemporary voice and we haven't had a great deal of that lately on the BBC. The people who don't want us here don't even want tourists. They are scared of progress. I can tell you, this is a very lively place, no matter how it seems on the surface."

The Friends' chairman, Robin Barrett, said he resented being labelled a snob. He said: "It's not true that we don't welcome tourism but we don't want anybody coming up here in search of promiscuity and drugs.

"We are simply concerned and have every right to be concerned about the beauty and serenity of the Lakes. That's why it's a National Park. We believe the BBC should be more responsible about these things. We have seen in the past what the power of television can do. It's not necessarily a pretty sight."