BBC First screens an adventure melodrama set in penal NSW -but can we talk about what's missing?
Timing is everything.
While viewers have just finished watching The Secret River on ABC, a fictional story based on colonial history, BBC First is about to premiere Banished -also a fictional story on our colonial history.
But the two are poles apart, principally because ABC has included Indigenous characters and BBC has not.
Banished is written by acclaimed UK writer, Jimmy McGovern whose body of work includes being story producer on Redfern Now. In the media kit and subsequent articles, he has stated that in this story the British have not yet met Aboriginal people.
“The time frame in Banished is very short something just over two weeks, and there is not sufficient time to develop and do justice to indigenous characters,” he writes.
Yet there are several references to “natives” by the characters.
Banished presents as an adventure melodrama built on themes of romance and survival. Russell Tovey plays James Freeman, an obstinate pickpocket who lands in New South Wales and is secretly in love with fellow prisoner Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring), but she is the girlfriend of his friend Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind-Tutt).
Governor Arthur Phillip (David Wenham) seeks to maintain law with a firm but fair hand, believing a new nation can be forged on the merits of a new society. But the convicts, and even most of the soldiers, see little more than a brutal, unforgiving land far away from a civilised mother England.
Major Ross (Joseph Millson) serves as the villain of the saga, ordering convict Katherine McVitie (Joanna Vanderham) to his quarters for sex, despite the fact she loves Private MacDonald (Ryan Corr).
The first episode makes the most of its clearly-defined relationships, pushing characters to the brink when Elizabeth becomes the first woman to be whipped in NSW.
She urges James to hold Tommy back during a public whipping. “She can take 25 lashes, she cannot take losing you,” Tommy is told.
James is also at risk of starving due to a bully blacksmith stealing his food. Should he kill the blacksmith or report him to the Governor?
“I am either a grass or a corpse,” he insists.
Various moral challenges in the pursuit of survival and tenderness -women are regularly traded for “shagging”- are a big part of Banished. But some sudden changes of heart, such as one by Governor Phillip involving Tommy, struck me as somewhat inconsistent.
Also appearing are Ewen Bremner as Rev. Johnson, whose veneration of Tommy as Christ-like is bizarre, and his very solitary wife Mary Johnson (the wonderful and under-utilised Genevieve O’Reilly). Orla Brady and Ned Dennehy are also particularly good in support roles.
Tovey is excellent as the lynchpin of this ensemble tale, while a handful of Aussies including David Wenham and Ryan Corr never look out of place alongside the Brits.
Almost all of Banished‘s early episodes take place at the one location of the colonial camp (filmed at Manly Dam), which give the series something of a theatrical feel. That said, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. I was less convinced by the immaculate, shiny uniforms of the military given the harsh surrounds -they looked like they had been rented from the BBC.
That the cast are so adept with the material does not resolve the question for me: What’s the point of it all? Are we supposed to deduce life was harsh for both convicts and military in penal Sydney? A decent high school history class told us that. Or are we to simply lose ourselves in the romantic trio of James, Elizabeth and Tommy? Using real names such as Gov. Phillip just left me confused.
Finally, I don’t concur with the creative decision to omit Indigenous characters. Seven episodes is enough to tell the tales of convicts, military and authority, why not Aboriginal characters? Movies have achieved this in 90 minutes. I’d suggest even a short film could do much the same. I’m not suggesting it depict an entire Indigenous history. It’s about adding context. Heck, even the landscape shots of the Blue Mountains don’t have distant smoke. Really?
The BBC, including the Australian arm which has co-produced this, should have pushed harder for this chapter to be realised and lets down their reputation and the audience.
As a result Banished is, as has been defended, little more than a romantic piece of fiction.
Banished premieres 8:30pm Thursday on BBC First.