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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This isn’t McGovern’s first Australian project; he was a story editor on Redfern Now (2014), the first TV series to be commissioned, written, acted and produced by indigenous Australians. Yet despite well-documented evidence of encounters between the First Fleeters and the Aboriginal people, these don’t feature in Banished. McGovern, a Liverpudlian who grew up as one of nine children in a two-up, two-down in Everton, is wary of social stereotyping.

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“You know the negative stereotypes of the Scouser?” he asks. “‘What do you call a Scouser in a suit? ‘The accused’ – that sort of thing. It’s all lies – we’re no better and no worse than anyone else in the country. But being a Scouser makes you that bit more sensitive, I think, to portraying people accurately. And we just didn’t have room, in this first series at least, to treat the Aboriginal people’s story with the respect and care it deserves. Ten minutes per episode would just have been an insult.”

Energetic and deft in his movements – at his home a few miles, yet worlds away, from Everton, he knocks up soup, butters rolls and fills buckets for window cleaners without pausing for breath – McGovern, 65, is far warmer than his on-message rhetoric might make him sound. And while Banished is packed with life-or-death incident and moral dilemmas, it’s clear that he engages with his characters as individuals.

“I didn’t come with preconceived notions and fit them into storylines. Because of that, I think the characters in Banished are some of the best I’ve drawn in over 30 years of writing.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, the writer’s sympathy is divided between the convicts and their oppressors. Early colonial life, he points out, was a great leveller. “Right at the beginning, it was a strangely fair society. The rations were equal, though I think only the troops were given rum. And discipline was equal; anybody stealing food was hanged. It’s not in our story, but early on, they found a group of marines stealing food and hanged them all.”

Still, an equal society, however brutal, doesn’t make for McGovern’s type of drama. In Banished, a considerable part of the plot turns on the notion that the marine guards were, by law, given “first rights” to convict women. “I’ve invented that,” says the writer, cheerfully. “I just needed a big idea, something to get the ball moving. Having said that, there were something like 20 men to every women in the camp. Women had to use what they had to survive and all they had was their skin. I’m positive about that, and most of the soldiers did get most of the women because they had authority.” 

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True or not, the device tees up a cracking love triangle, with convicts Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and James Freeman (Russell Tovey) braving all for the love of feisty Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring). The noose is always one false step away and viewers are left in no doubt as to McGovern’s strong views about capital punishment. “You can always make a mistake,” he says. “It’s as basic as that. How many Irish people would have been wrongfully killed in our own country if hanging had been allowed?”