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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McGovern’s prison colony is a brutal testing ground for principle, a resounding endorsement of honour among thieves. “Well,” he says, “how do you get to be rich? You get to be rich by sacrificing your principles.”

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Has he sacrificed his own? “Maybe not principles so much as dreams. The money comes in. But I’ve worked hard for nothing because it helped people. There’s a quote from a guy – I can’t remember who – who said: ‘When I was a young man, I believed in things with such passion that I could have killed for them. Now that I’m an old man, I’m so glad I didn’t.’ I would go along with that.

“My family’s Irish, but I’m so glad I wasn’t born in Ireland. I would have been ‘involved’. Well no, I might have been too much of a coward. But I would have tried. And how many people are there who killed, for what they thought were real reasons – and who today bitterly regret it? So yes, we get older. And every day is an accommodation.”

MyAnna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in Banished

Which is not to say the fight has gone out of McGovern. He’s just waiting for the green light on a new drama about Reg Keys, the bereaved father who in 2005 stood as an independent anti-war candidate against Tony Blair in his Sedgefield constituency, after Key’s serviceman son was killed in Iraq. Casting for this project, however, won’t be easy.

“If this was old-time Hollywood, you’d get Gary Cooper or James Stewart in the Reg Keys role. But that’s a real problem we’ve got in Britain today. I’m constantly looking round for actors who can convincingly portray working-class men. They’re getting fewer and fewer because it’s only the posh ones who can afford to go into acting. And it affects the kind of British drama that gets made. If you were to cast Saturday Night and Sunday Morning today, who would you get for the Albert Finney role?”

It’s a hurdle, but nothing a good writer can’t get over or around. “Reg Keys and Tony Blair,” he chuckles. “Talk about David and Goliath!”

There is a polite pretence of brushing breadcrumbs from his palms, but Jimmy McGovern can’t help it. He’s rubbing his hands.

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Banished begins on BBC2 tonight (Thursday 5th March) at 9pm