Jimmy McGovern tackles Australia’s dark past

04 April, 2014 by Don Groves

A seven-part series set during the turbulent period of the establishment of the penal colony in Sydney in 1788 may seem a stretch for Liverpool-born and based writer Jimmy McGovern.

Yet Banished, which starts shooting in Sydney on Monday, deals with themes the writer has often explored in the UK series he's created in a distinguished 30- year career.


“Jimmy’s stories are about the moral complexities which human beings face when they are in difficult situations,” his producing partner Sita Williams tells IF. “He asks the audience: ‘What would you have done in that situation? Would you have done it any differently?’”

David Wenham heads the large Australian/British cast as Governor Arthur Phillip, a pragmatic idealist who hopes to turn the penal colony into a land of opportunity for all. Joseph Milson portrays his nemesis Major Ross, who believes the only chance of survival is to rule with an iron fist.

Ryan Corr and Adam Nagaitis play privates, Ewen Bremner is a pious priest with Genevieve O’Reilly as his selfless wife and Brooke Harman as Governor Phillip’s housekeeper. Cast as convicts are Orla Brady, Joanna Vanderham, Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey.

“This group of people could have landed on the moon,” said Williams. “The show is about how you found a society, how you make laws and govern that society, fairly or unfairly.”

Banished was commissioned by BBC2 and BBC First, BBC Worldwide’s premium drama and comedy channel which launches on Foxtel in August. See-Saw Films is the Australian co-producer.  BBC Worldwide has the international sales rights.

This is McGovern’s second Australian project; he was the story producer on ABC-TV’s Redfern Now. Among his UK credits are The Street, Accused, Moving On, The Lakes and Cracker.

The lead director is Englishman Daniel Percival, who is directing the first three episodes which will shoot at Manly dam, assorted beaches and the Blue Mountains.

Australian Jeffrey Walker, who’s been based in Los Angeles for the past two years, will direct four episodes in a Manchester studio where all the interiors will be filmed- a challenge for the crew to match those scenes with the exteriors. Walker is also shooting exteriors here.

The producers found Walker via a circuitous route. The sister of Williams' producer colleague Roxy Spencer, who lives in California, heard a radio interview with Guy Pearce.  Guy raved about Walker, who directed him in the Jack Irish telemovies. Spencer duly did due diligence on Walker, tracked him down and they began discussing Banished. 

The DoPs are the UK’s Steve Lawes (Sherlock) and Martin McGrath (Rake, Jake Irish, Killing Time). David Hirschfelder (The Railway Man, Shine, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia) is the composer.

The co-directors are collaborating to ensure the series has a seamless look and tone, described by Walker as a blend of “intimate and epic.” Percival said, “Jimmy has created this crucible of characters, convicts, the marines who guard them and the governor and his administration staff, people with a shared fate who have to negotiate survival every day in an alien environment.”

McGovern won’t come to Australia for the shoot but in pre-production he has been having long and frequent conversations- one went for five hours- with the directors, Williams and Spencer.

“Jimmy is wonderful, very collaborative,” said Walker, who has directed episodes of Modern Family, Bones and Rebel Wilson’s Super Fun Night in the US. “He wants to hear ideas. If he decides to fix something he’ll send new pages the next day.”

If the series is rated as a success, Williams says there are plans for a second series.