At its heart, Banished is a story of survival. Though it is set in the stark historical reality of the founding of the penal colony in Australia in 1788 after the arrival of the First Fleet, it is not the story of Australia and how it came to be.
Rather, it is a tale of love, faith, justice and morality played out on an epic scale in a confined community where the stakes are literally life and death.
“If you’re a woman and you have nothing except your body,” says writer Jimmy McGovern, “how far do you go to survive? If you’re a man and a stronger man is stealing your food and you are starving to death and nobody lifts a finger to help you because it’s every man for himself, what do you?”
Several years ago McGovern developed a film about the plight of the first convicts in New South Wales. It was, says Sita Williams, McGovern’s long-time producing partner, a wonderful script but it was never made. Instead the film provided the framework for a series.
“Jimmy always wanted to go back to the thing that he loved doing most in his Brookside days, which is multi-character, multi-strand, continuing stories. He said, ‘I’ve got this story,’ we read it and we went ‘absolutely.’”
McGovern had already been working in Australia as a story editor on the acclaimed multi-award winning ABC drama Redfern Now. He expanded his original film with new characters and stories gleaned from history but given new life. Many of the characters in Banished, from Governor Phillip, the founder of the settlement that would become Sydney, to Major Robert Ross, his nemesis, are known figures from history - but their stories here are fictional.
There is, McGovern points out, an honourable tradition for this approach – “I go all the way back to the days of Wagon Train on NBC which told the stories of the travellers going from the East Coast of America over to the West Coast - all that stuff was factual but the stories they told were fiction. .
“These series used real people, but the stories affecting those historically real people were often fictional.”
As relevant as what McGovern has chosen to include in his story is what he has opted to omit. The First Fleeters did have well-documented encounters with the aboriginal people, but none will appear in this series of Banished.
“The British haven’t met the aboriginal people in my drama. It is difficult to exaggerate how important is it to get the portrayal of indigenous Australians right. In recent years I have been fortunate enough to work with a group of aboriginal people as story editor on Redfern Now, a contemporary urban drama. 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.”
As ever with McGovern’s work, Banished is concerned with ordinary people who by a twist of fate find themselves in extraordinary situations - but they remain situations that anyone could identify with. Although Banished is set in the 18 th century, it is in many ways a contemporary story.
“There’s quite a formal language being used even by the convicts,” says McGovern, “but apart from that, you could tell the story now. You take a group of people up to a log cabin up in the mountains and you ask, ‘how do you survive?’”