“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. Or more recently you could look at Deadwood, which was a terrific series, and brought in Wild Bill Hickok and people like that. 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. Hopefully if there’s another series there would be time to collaborate and get any representation right.”
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 18th 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?’”
Yet if the themes are universal and enduring, the setting is particular. The task of bringing Australia, 1788, to life fell to directors Daniel Percival and Jeffrey Walker and their crews. The first decision that was made was that the production would be split – all of the exteriors would be shot on location, in Sydney, Australia, and thereafter the production would return to Manchester to film the interiors.
Lead director Daniel Percival says: “We knew right from the beginning that we were going to shoot all the exteriors on location in Australia. There’s nowhere else to film them. One of the extraordinary things about the environment around Sydney is the landscape is very much as it was. Not literally Sydney Cove where the Opera House is, but you only have to go a few miles north and you’re in virgin forest again, with estuaries and inlets very similar to what the first fleet would have seen.”
The decision was made to base the convicts’ camp at Manly Dam, surrounded by dense bush and replete with native wildlife.
Daniel Percival says: “Jimmy had imagined a world where between the barrier of the ocean and the barrier of the forest there was this strip of Georgian England trying to carve out an existence and survive. It didn’t take much to stand in these spots and feel that – and then try to capture it.”
Nonetheless, if the Sydney location was hugely compelling, filming two halves of a major production on different sides of the world presented a major logistical problem.
Jeffrey Walker, who directed the second block, turned up to find himself filming the final scene of the whole series on his first day of filming.
“It was just the way that the locations worked out. But it showed me how it was going to be – shooting four episodes concurrently in two very, very different locations on the other side of the world was a huge challenge. What it came down to was if someone leaves a tent in Australia screen right, then we had to match that exactly when they came to the studio in Manchester. It dictated where we put our cameras in the studio, so that hopefully the audience are none the wiser.”
It was a challenge that also affected Production Designer Claire Kenny. She had to oversee the construction of an entire convict camp in Manly Dam, and then replicate that same camp from the inside over in Manchester – even to the point where bags of original Manly Eucalyptus leaves were shipped all the way back to England with her.
Yet as with McGovern’s script, at every call the first requirement for Banished was how best to tell the story, rather than pitch-perfect historical accuracy.
“Our whole story really is a bit of a creation, we wanted to create a world that was a hybrid between the historic reality and somewhere that gave us a sense of dramatic interest and variety, says Kenny. “There was a fair amount of artwork available, but what I found when I started to research the piece was the same prints were everywhere, and there was a very muted palette to them.”
And so she adjusted: in reality, the entire camp would have consisted of tents made of white canvas. “But that would have made for a very bland look, offering a limited tonal contrast particularly when it came to our interiors back in the UK. So, we shipped out our own canvas, which was a more interesting rich tan colour, and we decided to embrace build methods that I saw in early Australian settlements. We ended up with some tents, and some solid structures.”
The camp was a major undertaking, built on public land and so requiring the assent as much as the goodwill of the local people. “There were some challenges for us,” says Kenny. “Because it’s a public area, there were picnic areas in the centre of Manly Dam, and so in actual fact when you see the Governor’s house, there’s a metal picnic pergola in the centre of it that we had to build around.”
But whatever compromises had to be made, time and again the primary requirement was that character was paramount. Everything else stemmed from there.
“We have the characters,” says Sita Williams, “and then the plot comes out of who they are, the situation in which they find themselves. What’s really special about Banished is at its heart there are love stories. People always think of Jimmy as doing tough political stories or tough moral dilemmas, but essentially the way these people keep going in the most brutal circumstances is by forming relationships with one another. That’s how they survive.”
International award-winning independent production companies RSJ Films (Accused, The Street) and See-Saw Films (Top Of The Lake, The King’s Speech, Shame) joined forces for the first time to co-produce Banished.
Banished is written and devised by Jimmy McGovern, and Shaun Duggan (Accused) has co-written episode five. Sita Williams produces for RSJ Films and also executive produces with Roxy Spencer and Jimmy McGovern. Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, and Jamie Laurenson are executive producers for See-Saw Films. Brett Popplewell co-produces for See-Saw Films alongside Simon Hailey RSJ Films co-producer. Lead director is Daniel Percival (Death Comes To Pemberley), who directs episodes one to three, and Australian director Jeffrey Walker (Jack Irish) directs episodes four to seven.