Rewind: ‘The Lakes’ revisited

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‘I don’t have what it takes to dry dishes: you know, drive, ambition, a lobotomy…’


What’s it about?

With Jimmy McGovern at his writing peak for ITV and Channel 4 in the mid-1990s (quality dramas such as Hearts and Minds, Cracker and Hillsborough redefined overused telly adjectives like ‘gritty’ and ‘hard-hitting’) the BBC was eager for a McGovern show of their own.

What they got, in 1997, was The Lakes: the story of Danny Kavanagh, played by a young John Simm (Mad Dogs, Life on Mars), a gambling addict and wannabe poet who flees the swarming wisdom of Liverpool’s streets for the soaking, grey-and-green idyll of the Lake District, in search of inspiration and escape.

What he finds, however, are a wife (Emma Cunniffe, who, like Simm, had appeared in Cracker and would later feature in Doctor Who), a baby and the dismal truth that misfortune follows him around like the smoky, sweaty stench of a backstreet bookie’s.

While the show positively hums with the culture of its time, Britpop, violence and butt-naked sexy time bursting out of every grainy, nicotinic frame, The Lakes is more than just a time-capsule from a dead age. The central themes of betrayal, revenge and behind-closed-curtains wickedness remain as potent in 2012 as they were back in Blair’s Britain.

In Danny Kavanagh, McGovern created a kind of Anti-Fitz, a character who shares several characteristics with the legendary psychologist (and some similar lines: ‘Go in there and get stripped off. If I’m not there in ten minutes, start without me’) but shown from a skewed perspective.

Fitz’s chronic gambling disasters tended to be portrayed through a veil of humorous resignation; Danny’s excesses lead to violence and despair. Judith Fitzgerald ultimately forgives her husband’s failings; Emma is much less inclined be so magnanimous with hers.


Who was in it?

In addition to Simm and Cunniffe, the series was packed with McGovern stalwarts and veterans of ‘90s TV such as Mary Jo Randle, Robert Pugh, Clare Holman, Tony Rohr and Barbara Wilshere.

There were also early career appearances for Stella’s Elizabeth Berrington and No Angels’ Kay Wragg, while Kevin Doyle – Joseph Moseley in the first series of Downton Abbey – played murderously jealous schoolteacher John Parr.


Best moment?

The Lakes could be described as Cracker’s wayward son, sharing not only creator, cast and dialogue but also autobiographical plot detail (Danny, like Albie in To Be a Somebody, is a Scouser who meets his future wife while working in a Cumbrian hotel – a scenario adapted from Jimmy McGovern’s own past) and a tipping point: like the parent programme, it careers off the rails when McGovern’s watchful gaze is turned elsewhere.

The second series lacks its creator’s masterly touch, bulldozing through one lurid scene after another before reaching a suitably grotesque finale. There’s certainly nothing to match the scene from the very first episode, which cuts from Danny and Emma’s wedding in the tranquil environs of Ullswater to a shot of the newlyweds climbing a grassy bank to find a decaying Liverpool tower block – their new home – on the other side.


Last seen?

The second and final series concluded in March 1999, with the energetically oversexed and frighteningly well-endowed Chef (Charles Dale) being literally emasculated, John Wayne Bobbitt-style, by his wife. Like his renowned equipment, it hasn’t been seen since.


The future?

The Lakes is re-released on DVD as a 4-disc boxset on next week, containing all 14 original episodes and a bonus commentary by John Simm and Series 1 director David Blair.


> Buy the boxset on Amazon.

What are your memories of The Lakes? Let us know below…

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