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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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?”
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.”
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.
Banished begins on BBC2 tonight (Thursday 5th March) at 9pm