Jimmy McGovern on Banished, being a Scouser and the scarcity of working-class actors

As his Australian penal colony drama starts on BBC2, The Street creator explains why he's written a historical love story

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Jimmy McGovern was ten years old when he first saw Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 western High Noon. “I still think it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen,” says the award-winning writer of Cracker, Hillsborough and The Street. “You’ve got Gary Cooper, alone against the baddies. And when you analyse that, it’s the essence of all political drama. The hero must face seemingly insurmountable odds. Like David and Goliath – if Goliath wins, there’s no story.” 

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It’s been high noon for McGovern ever since. From his early days on Brookside, Channel 4’s issue-laden soap, to Common, his 2014 drama about England’s “common enterprise” legislation (by which you can be found guilty of murder by association, even if you didn’t strike the fatal blow), he has been riding, guns blazing, to the rescue of the underdog. “I think I always write about politics,” he says, scratching his head. 

Now, with Banished, McGovern’s gone global. Jointly commissioned by BBC2 and BBC Worldwide, this seven-parter charts the establishment of Britain’s first penal colony in New South Wales. Some of the characters, such as Captain Arthur Phillip, the colony’s progressive governor, and Major Robert Ross, the officer in charge of the First Fleet garrison of marines, are historical, and the exterior locations – filmed at Manly Dam, near Sydney’s northern beaches – closely replicates the colony’s original setting. “I always had this vision of a strip of sand between the boiling blue ocean and the deep, dark bush,” says McGovern, though he’s quick to point out that, in essence, the drama could as easily take place on the Moon.

“In some ways, it could be sci-fi. It’s that whole idea of going into a totally alien environment and building a society from first principles.”

“The landing of the First Fleet was an amazing feat. They left England in May 1787 and landed eight months later in the middle of the Australian summer.” Some 732 convicts and their children were disembarked in the sweltering heat, along with 245 marines and their families. “To get all those people across the oceans was a major undertaking. Convicts in Britain – an awful lot of them anyway – were given the choice on the scaffold: either hang or be transported to Australia.”

By the time the last convicts arrived in 1868, more than 160,000 men and women had made the journey, in hundreds of ships. “It has become fashionable, now, in Australia to have one or two convicts in your past, but that’s a recent thing,” McGovern adds. “And it’s interesting, because what the Aussies like to do is to portray their ancestors as people who stole off the lords of the manor. In reality most of them were petty thieves with no morals whatsoever.”

This is not a criticism. “There’s this thought that crime runs in families and you’re only as good as your dad was. Well, that’s totally wrong and I always argue that Australia is the proof. Because if crime were in your genes, then Australia would be the most crime-ridden society in the world – when it’s one of the safest.

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“It’s also true that, if you’re black and Aboriginal, you have more chance of being in prison than if you’re white, and that, to me, is overwhelming proof that opportunities in life – money, education – are what determine whether you’re crime-free or not.”