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Yes, Banished is bleak but it opens our eyes to a fascinating period of history

Jimmy McGovern is in his element creating drama built on inequality, tragedy and misfortune - and Banished is no exception, says Ellie Walker-Arnott
By Ellie Walker-Arnott

TV has a knack of leaving us feeling dreary nowadays, whether it’s Happy Valley or The Village, Broadchurch, The Fall or even Call the Midwife. I rarely find myself feeling uplifted after an evening in front of the box.

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The Street and The Accused writer Jimmy McGovern is no stranger to the kind of telly I’m talking about. He’s in his element creating drama built on inequality, tragedy and misfortune – and, with unbearably bleak, unrelenting hardships and flogging scenes which turned off tweeters, Banished is no exception.

His new BBC2 Thursday night offering is yet another period drama designed to expose our cosy, privileged 21st century brains to the hardship and suffering of our ancestors. Nothing new there. But it does shine a light on a period of time many of us know surprisingly little about.

History teachers love the Romans, the Tudors and the World Wars. But, at least in my case, there's a blind spot when it comes to the 18th century – it's a period of time that rarely sees the light of day on TV. And – apologies for the sweeping stereotypes – Australia more often than not conjures up images of sun-soaked beaches, BBQs, Neighbours and perpetually happy people. It’s easy to ignore the fact that the country we know now has such troubled and bleak moments in its history.

Set in 1788 in the first Australian penal colony and based on real convicts sent across the seas for petty crimes, Banished taps into a oft-overlooked time full of new and upsetting hardships.

It begins with a nightmare – nooses waving in the wind – and mere seconds later Myanna Buring’s character Elizabeth Quinn is threatened with rape.

“Just let me do this,” shouts her superior Private Buckley. Elizabeth's a convict pursued for sleeping with Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind-Tutt), a fellow criminal and the man she loves. The pair's relationship is punishable by death because “scum must not breed” – but Buckley will let her go if she complies.

The currency of this “godforsaken corner of a godforsaken country” is sex and food. Women face a constant threat of attack from the soldiers who have suddenly been granted ruling class status – and ownership of every female. If they want a favour, or the sustenance required to survive, all they can do is lift up their skirts.

Last night’s first episode saw Elizabeth granted the dubious honour of becoming the first woman flogged in New South Wales – 25 lashings, until the skin on her back was bloodied and raw – while Tommy spent a while with a noose resting around his neck. Thankfully, after the priest's wife intervened, Julian Rhind-Tutt's character lived to see another day, but we are left with no doubt that his days will remain plagued with misery.

There are dangerous beasts, poisonous spiders and an evil blacksmith (played by Game of Thrones' The Hound) who'll, as Russell Tovey's character James Freeman knows all too well, will steal your meagre meals if you're not careful. Not forgetting the threat of the natives, unknown sicknesses and disease, violence and the settlements' unstable politics. 

It's a fascinating period of time, and it's not hard to see where the rest of the series is set to go: more misery and misfortune. We should be careful not to care too much, as our favourite characters' days are likely numbered. 

As is McGovern's wont, let up is unlikely – we know in 200 years' time it'll all be okay, but Banished is set over a relatively short two-week time frame – although, by now, we should know what we are getting ourselves into when we tune in to one of his bleak creations...

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Banished continues on Thursdays at 9:00pm on BBC2

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