Banished resonates despite non-Indigenous criticism

07 July, 2015 by Don Groves

David Wenham in Banished


The omens weren't great in the lead-up to the premiere of Banished on BBC First amid the controversy over the absence of Indigenous characters in the drama set in penal colony NSW.

UK critics had lambasted the 7-part series created by Jimmy McGovern as a soppy and heavy-handed romantic triangle when it premiered on BBC2 in March.

McGovern defended his decision on the grounds that the action takes place during the first weeks of settlement in 1788 before the new settlers had any direct interaction with the Indigenous people.

The June 25 premiere on BBC First, which co-commissioned the series starring David Wenham as Governor Arthur Phillip, MyAnna Buring, Russell Tovey and Julian Rhind-Tutt, may have caused a few nervous ripples at Foxtel and BBC First: just 38,000 watched the first telecast, according to OzTam.

But audiences for the first and second episodes have grown with repeats and time-shifted viewing, which may indicate the media fuss did not deter viewers.

According to BBC Worldwide (BBCWW), the premiere has attracted a cumulative audience of 272,000 and the second episode drew 233,000 across BBC First and UKTV. There are a further four plays of each episode to consolidate.

“We are very pleased with the ratings for Banished which is the second highest premiere on BBC First to date, behind the established and hugely popular Call The Midwife,” a BBCWW spokesperson told IF.

“Banished gained an audience well above the primetime and timeslot averages for the channel. There is little to suggest that controversy around any show deters viewers from tuning in. In general the response to Banished by audiences has been overwhelmingly positive.”

The firestorm of criticism over the lack of Aboriginal characters prompted McGovern, who produced the series with his producing partner Sita Williams and See-Saw Films, to write an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.

McGovern wrote, “Ï have had the pleasure of working with a number of Indigenous writers over the years, including as story editor on Redfern Now, and I know how important their story is and how important it is to get the portrayal of Indigenous Australians right.

“I can… understand how people would find it strange that a drama about British settlement of Australia wouldn't show any Aboriginal people. But Banished is not a drama about the settlement of Australia, it is not a broad, sweeping colonial history taking in months or even years of events. Instead it concentrates on a specific set of fictional events which take place over a couple of weeks within the confines of the camp – a story about a love triangle and how Australia got its first hangman .

“In the drama the action takes place during the first weeks of settlement before the characters have had any direct interaction with the Indigenous people. I chose not to include any Aboriginal characters as I was clear that story needed to be told properly, and that Indigenous people shouldn't be included in a tokenistic way as simply background characters.

“Within seven episodes and with a story arc of two weeks there wasn't time to tell that story too in the way it deserved, however I was clear that any second series would tell the Aboriginal experience as the settlers expanded beyond the confines of the camp.”

BBC2 has not commissioned a second series.

On a broader level, the question remains whether BBC First has delivered a significant increase in subscribers for Foxtel to justify the estimated annual licence fee of $20 million.

The channel sits in the drama pack along with showcase, SoHo, 13th Street, FX and Box Sets and costs $20 per month in addition to the $25 basic package.

IF believes the drama pack is not proving to be as popular as Foxtel hoped. One factor may be competition from Netflix, which reportedly has upwards of 1.5 million subscribers.

Another may be that BBC First is available on Fetch TV’s basic tier for $29.95 per month. Most Fetch subscribers get the service at no extra cost as part of their Optus broadband package.