Banished – A stunning drama – The first and (sadly), the only series.
It was a stunning drama – the fact that Jimmy McGovern was the writer, almost guaranteed that we would have gritty realism, punches (many) to the heart and gut, and a lot of complex and nuanced issues to leave the viewer puzzling over – not to mention difficult challenges for the characters, who would be complex people.
The script then would be a wonderful starting point for a potentially brilliant drama, and ‘all’ that would then be needed would be equal brilliance from director, (Jeffrey Walker) technical crew, and most of all, some wonderful actors. Tick, Tick, TICK!
The background and setting is Australia, 1788, and the arrival of the first convict ship with transported criminals to be banished (some for life) into this new world. So, the convicts are one group, struggling in a harsh place, to survive. Then there are the military, here for a limited term of duty (but this is still in years) to keep those convicts under control. And then there is the governor, not a military man, a Crown appointed ruler. So, clearly some different agendas going on, and a wealth of potential conflicts. And also of course some other disparate people, with different agendas again – mainly, the representative of Divine Law – the Church, which in this case is in the guise of a Reverend (and his wife) who are deeply committed to saving souls.
And, almost greater than all of these individuals and their conflicts is the harsh, unknown, inaccessible continent itself. Reaching Australia was dangerous and hazardous, the colony will need to support itself – growing food, farming the livestock they brought with them, hunting what they can, and the difficulty of the journey means that it is impossible to know when more convict ships (with more supplies) will arrive, the present military will be relieved, or, indeed whether the mother country will remember its servants and its outcasts at all. And, even more unknown – what of any indigenous peoples, and will they be friend or foe, ‘savages’ who can be duped and exploited, or, perhaps, peoples to be respected and negotiated with.
Now the bad news, the very very very bad news is, that the BBC recently announced that there would not be a second series, so some of the threads which were clearly waiting to be developed will not happen – and the relationship with the indigenous peoples was clearly a strand for the second series, as, in the first series, almost the whole focus is ‘inside the colony’ with only one episode indicating that there might be some other human life outside the cleared area of the first settlement.
Please note, the fan made trailer below uses the dreadful trailer music employed by the Beeb on the show – it is not indicative of any in show soundtrack. I recently read an interesting article by James Gill on the Radio Times website about the dire inappropriate use of trailer music which seems snatched at random from a ragbag entitled ‘any old stuff for trailers’. I guess this is Auntie thinking this is the way to get down with the kidz and attract a younger generation. Seems a bit reductive/insulting/patronising to me. But then I’m not a kidz.
This is an absolutely operatic, epic, classical tragedy type piece, – the very antithesis of a familiar, little, domestic drama. Consider, for example, the fact that there are male and female convicts, but soldiers do not come with their wives or with their children. So, how are ‘men’s needs’ to be met – why, the female convicts of course. They are there as bounty, the soldiers’ creatures for the choosing. And it is a hanging offence (for male convicts) and a flogging (for females) for the convicts to have sexual relationships with each other.
Then there is the issue of how the female convicts should be assigned. For fairness, lots are chosen, women will be the property of several men, and of course, higher ranking officers get dibs. Disobeying orders given by a superior officer is also a punishable offence. There are potential challenges between the military and the governor, with a more hard-line military leader, and a governor who is more idealistic, and with more ‘humane’ ideas (though still autocratic)
Even more pressing, with effectively 1 armed soldier to 10 convicts, in a situation where there is extreme shortage of food, where sex is a hanging offence, and heat and drought are extreme, the whole situation is a tinderbox of conflict. And this is not a confined prison where cons can be locked in a cell and all kept apart from each other. Compliance is needed for any kind of physical structures to be built. It is only the hostility of the land itself which prevents mass escapes. Or indeed any escape
There are some wonderful central stories to follow. First are two sets of star crossed lovers. One is a more mature couple – the charismatic Julian Rhind Tutt as Tommy Barrett, who has fallen in love, on that voyage, with Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring) Quinn is a strong, forthright and equally charismatic woman. The two also have a fierce friendship with fellow convict, James Freeman, the magnificent Russell Tovey. Freeman’s story is the central one. He also loves Quinn – and has an equally strong bond of friendship with Barrett. So clearly, a painful struggle for him between sexual love and the strength of loyalty given between friends. The rules of the colony of course prohibit Quinn and Barrett being together, and Quinn is useable by the soldiers, and cannot choose refusal
The second star-crosseds are a young and beautiful pair, innocent and in some ways not yet tested by complexity. Pretty Katherine McVitie (Joanna Vanderham) has been falsely accused of theft by her jealous employer, because the master of the house tried to force himself upon her. She, and an idealistic young soldier, Private MacDonald (Ryan Corr) have fallen in love, and both are anxious that she should only be his bedfellow, and that she shall not have to share her favours. Unfortunately, MacDonald’s highest ranking superior, the Machiavellian, Iago like figure, Major Ross (Joseph Millson) – another stunning performance, the person you love to hate, also develops a growing obsession with McVitie
But there are many many more conflicts than these – every single character is nuanced, and at times divided against themselves, torn by different beliefs, different loyalties. It almost feels invidious to name any of the actors, as every one commits wonderfully to the piece, and many of the performances are brave, raw, and shocking.
However, it is James Freeman, more than any other character, who is tested, torn, challenged by some unbearable choices; he is forced to be both villain and hero, sometimes in the same instant. And I have to say that a number of times, in the series I was on the edge of my seat, literally shouting ‘No, NO, NO!’ as something absolutely inevitable was clearly going to happen, and Freeman would be both the perpetrator and the victim, and torn apart by conflict. And Russell Tovey rises to meet the challenges of playing this character beautifully. He is raw, subtle, ferocious, a brave maelstrom of emotion. At times watching him was almost uncomfortable because of the nakedness of the ugly struggles the character goes through – struggles with himself. It’s a performance without confines, almost going right up to the wire of being overdone, but I never felt that TOVEY was self-indulging. Where there was a sense of ‘overdoing the emo’ it was FREEMAN. It must be said that there was an excellence in performance by all, and each actor was contributing to cranking up the standard of everyone else.
I SHALL be buying the DVD, for sure, but I am still kind of needing the astonishing power of the initial transmission of this to settle, before I am ready to watch it again.
The series was fairly rapturously received by viewers, but did not do well from the professional reviewers. However, there has been quite a strong campaign launched on social media to demand the BBC rethinks its decision not to go for a second series. Whether public affection can override a generally ridiculing response from the heavyweight papers, remains to be seen.
The heavyweight TV reviewers pretty well all found the piece overdone and kind of uber-soapy. My word, though is ‘operatic’ , even ‘elemental’ not to mention, naked and dangerous – that’s because I really did ‘get’ the rawness of the world that those early convict ships and their entire community, were establishing.
It gets my very high fives.
And here is an interesting piece on the Beeb and its cutbacks, as well as more info about ‘Banished’ from a blogger who is external to WordPress, so I can’t appear her in the Posts That Caught My Beady Eye widget
Alas, Statesiders, this does not seem to have made it to your side of the pond.