The BBC have been on a good run recently when it comes to original historical drama, what with the excellent The Village and the equally good Peaky Blinders, not to mention the exquisite Wolf Hall.
To continue the run they have enlisted the reliable talents of Jimmy McGovern, he of Cracker and The Lakes fame, to write this seven-part series set in the early years of the colonisation of Australia.
But this is not a show about the founding of white Australia in the way that say Robert Hughes’ masterful The Fatal Shore was, it is rather a story of ‘love, faith, justice and morality’ set amidst the stark reality of the first British penal settlement in the antipodes. But by the end of this opening hour I was left wishing that it was a show that was more rigorously interested in the historical fact rather than the light soapy drama that dominates the first episode.
Which is not to say that Banished is not a well-made drama (it is), it is instead to say that McGovern’s interest in the personal and his recent weakness for melodrama have turned what in the hands of say HBO could have been a challenging, sweeping epic into something more akin to The Street: The Convict Years, in which we find convicts Russell Tovey and Julian Rhind-Tutt dealing with love and morality rather than the unforgiving climate, the brutal working conditions and the understandably hostile aboriginal population.
This opener centres on Tommy Barrett’s (Rhind-Tutt) desire to live with fellow convict Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring) as man and wife in the face of a colony law reserving women for the soldiers as recompense for their voluntary sacrifice.
Governor Phillip (David Wenham) tells us that London will send more women but until such time he must wrestle with his conscience: should they be punished (which inevitably means either flogging or hanging) or should they be granted their wish despite the reservations of the colony vicar (the pair are married to spouses left behind in England)?
Meanwhile, James Freeman (Tovey) – the symbolism of the name is irritatingly heavy-handed and is indicative of a general lack of nuance – is having his food stolen by the Blacksmith and camp bully as punishment for his rather unsuccessful stand against his tyranny (or is he simply trying to show off in front of one of the female convicts?).
There follows much machinations surrounding the rights and wrongs of ‘grassing’ and much talk amongst the officers of the benefits of one of the unskilled convicts dying from hunger, as it is ‘one less mouth to feed’ and of the need to turn a blind eye to the infractions of a skilled labourer. Existence in what is more than once described as a ‘godforsaken corner of a godforsaken country’ is precarious and you need every little bit of help you can muster.
What will ultimately determine whether Banished rises above the average is the strength of the performances and there are many strong ones on display here. Wenham in particular is excellent as the conflicted but good-hearted governor and Buring gives a powerful performance as the spirited and tough Quinn but Rhind-Tutt makes for a somewhat unbelievable convict, unless of course, unlike in our times, they actually punished white collar financial infractions in the 18th century.
So there are hints of something darker lurking within what appears at first glance to be a soft heart and perhaps this will manifest itself more as the series progresses, making Banished more compelling TV in the process.
Airs at 9pm on Thursday 5 March 2015 on BBC Two.
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