Entertainment & Arts

Banished: Jimmy McGovern tells story of first British convicts in Australia

Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in Banished
Image caption Russell Tovey (right) alongside Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind-Tutt

In his latest TV drama Banished, writer Jimmy McGovern tells a brutal story about the first British convicts to be transported to Australia.

"There will be so many Australian writers kicking themselves when they see this," says McGovern. "It's an amazing story that's never been told."

It is a scorching hot day in July 2014 and McGovern is on the set of his new drama, which occupies two giant hangars just outside central Manchester.

The talk among the cast and crew is how similar the weather is to when they were filming exterior scenes in Australia a few weeks earlier.

Set in 1788, Banished is a seven-part series that focuses on the prisoners and soldiers of the first penal colony in Australia.

The action takes place after the arrival of the First Fleet - the 11 ships from Great Britain that carried with them more than 1,000 convicts.

Image caption The exterior scenes were shot in Australia, before the production moved to Manchester

The ensemble cast includes Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Genevieve O'Reilly, Ewen Bremner and Orla Brady.

"We've got a cast of 20 over seven hours, so there's room for every character to grow," says McGovern, whose other TV work includes Cracker, The Lakes and The Accused.

McGovern has a reputation for tackling complicated and emotive subjects, and Banished is no different.

The writer's interest in the First Fleet goes back almost 10 years, when he was developing an idea for a TV movie and stumbled across the true story of how Australia got its first hangman.

"We tend to think of it as Australian history, but it's British history," he says. "It's about colonialism and imperialism."

Image caption Anne Meredith (Orla Brady), Elizabeth Quinn (Buring) and Katherine McVitie (Joanna Vanderham)

McGovern has more recently been working in Australia as a story editor on ABC drama Redfern Now, about Aboriginals in a Sydney suburb.

With the hangman story as his starting point, McGovern wrote Banished weaving fictional characters in with real historical figures such as Governor Phillip (David Wenham), the founder of the first settlement, and fleet commander Maj Robert Ross (Joseph Millson).

McGovern's "golden rule" was that the characters would speak without using contractions such as "don't", "isn't" and "can't".

"It became this very formal style," he says.

"Irrespective of the fact that a lot of them cannot read and write, they have the command of language so they talk in intelligent ways."

Image caption Mary Johnson, played by Genevieve O'Reilly, and the Reverend Stephen Johnson (Ewen Bremner)

One of the first production decisions taken was that all of the exteriors would be shot on location in Sydney, before relocating to Manchester to film the interior scenes.

Giving a tour of the set, production designer Claire Kenny explains that the tents and wooden buildings that have been constructed in Manchester are a third larger than their Australian counterparts, to allow more room for cameras to move inside.

She says the interiors are "historically accurate" because the settlers who left Britain in 1787 kept a detailed inventory of everything they took on the long voyage.

Tovey, who plays pickpocket James Freeman, admits there were concerns about cutting between scenes filmed on opposite sides of the globe.

"Everyone was a bit worried about how seamless it was going to be, but it feels like completely the same world," he says during a break in filming.

Image caption Him & Her star Tovey plays pickpocket James Freeman

Tovey describes his petty criminal character as "kind-hearted, sensitive and genuine". "He shouldn't really be there," he says.

"People were brainwashed at the time that these people were the lowest of the low. If they hadn't been sent to Australia they would have been hung.

"That was option you had. You could get hung, or you could go to Australia."

The actor, whose TV appearances include fantasy series Being Human and sitcom Him & Her, admits his "expressive face" lends itself to comedy, but says he is now looking for other kinds of roles.

"Every character that I've played has had humour. James Freeman has got humour, but there's terrible stuff on top of it that he has to deal with. But he still manages to find humility within that.

"I'm normally the lovable [idiot] - it's what I've always played. But as I'm getting older and filling out and able to grow facial hair, things are changing for me."

Banished starts on BBC Two on 5 March at 21:00 GMT.

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