BBC First screens an adventure melodrama set in penal NSW -but can we talk about what's missing?

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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.

10 Responses

  1. Personally I am disappointed in the series, I find the story corny and predictable, same same. Military facts are incorrect, for instance the salute to officers was never done without wearing headdress, which throughout this episode was delivered with hats off. The salute was for the uniform, not the man. And Ryan core is an utter disappointment also, he still needs more NIDA training in my experience with talent. The grim look of, “I am trying to look serious” is almost laughable. Soldiers came with their wives, so the “shagging” is modern tripe. Some Aboriginals where present when the First Fleet arrived and the aboriginal, Bennelong, was know to Arthur Philip.

  2. It’s not a history or factual. It a highly stylised drama about a the interactions of British convicts, marines and naval officers when they first land in an isolated and strange world. No he didn’t write The Secret River a fictional tale about conflict between aborigines and settlers 15 years later as the colony expanded its agricultural lands, nor did he think he had too.

    The BBC started making his story, then quietly axed it without an official press release leaving McGovern to break the news in May. It didn’t fit one narrow political viewpoint so despite Banished being highly popular, and having a lot of fans (who are trying to mount a social media campaign to get it resurrected), nobody will know how McGovern would have handled future developments in his version of the Sydney colony.

  3. No high school history class can possibly carry anything like the emotional punch to the story of how the convicts (and in particular the female convicts) were treated when this nation was founded that a drama series like this can (and in this case certainly does). Sure you could cover aboriginal stories in a 90 min movie, if it was set over a longer time span than this story was, and at a somewhat later time in the colony’s development, but then it would be a totally different story (one that sadly the powers that be at BBC Two have apparently decided not to pursue).

    Banished is an involving, tense, dramatic, wonderfully acted, masterfully written, excellently produced drama set in the early days of white settlement in Australia. What’s so confusing about that?

    1. So how come 2 weeks is adequate time to tell the story of the convicts? It does not, it tells a fictional slice of life about convicts. Could have also given an Indigenous perspective. If these characters have not met the “natives” why do they keep referring to them?

      1. It doesn’t pretend to tell “the” story of the convicts, it tells a very specific (fictional) story that certainly helps illuminate the conditions the convicts faced at the time, but that’s not its primary purpose, which is to entertain via an exciting story. In this respect it’s no different to any other piece of historical fiction (e.g. The Vikings, Mad Men or even the recent work of Hillary Mantel) – based on a real historical setting with a combination of real historical and fictional characters. There’s nothing unusual or hard to follow about this concept, the idea has been around for a long, long time.

        I never claimed they had not met the natives, it’s clear they had (or at least had sighted them) but had not yet had any great involvement with them.

        The problem is many people seem to want McGovern to have told a different story, with different characters, and over a…

        1. Agree it tells a very specific story, from one perspective. I just don’t understand why the time frame was capable of one perspective and not the other. Agree other stories use history for fictional stories, Downton Abbey is one example but fictional characters. Having Gov. Phillip does suggest some kind of reality, but I’ve never suggested the series is hard to follow. Just don’t agree 7 eps is inadequate time to include an Indigenous perspective. Redfern Now was 6 eps! Given you have seen the series, may I ask your association?

          1. It’s simply a creative choice because McGovern wanted to do a sort of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here version of the founding of the Colony focusing in the class and sexual tensions in English society at that time, for a UK audience.

            Aborigines had no major role in that story. Adding a scene of them standing in the distance would have done nothing but undermine the isolated and claustrophobic atmosphere of industrialising British men against a foreign harsh environment. And it would have come across as tokenistic and patronising as he said.

            If every story has to cover every perspective and fit the same politically correct framework they they will all become boringly the same.

  4. The two dramas have completely different objectives. The Secret River explores the idea that modern Australia was built on the mistreatment of the indigenous population, while Banished has a focus on the British class war.

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