FOUNDATION OF FEAR
Writer Jimmy McGovern offers some fanciful twists on Sydney’s first settlement
hey will be more aware in Australia of the liberties I’ve taken with their history,” says Jimmy McGovern, writer of the new BBC series Banished. “But I go all the way back to Wagon Train, which told the stories of people going from the east coast of America to the west coast. All that stuff was factual but the stories were fiction. Or Deadwood, which was a terrific series.”
Banished, which takes place just after the First Fleet’s arrival in NSW, was written and produced by McGovern, the man who gave us Cracker, the 1990s television series starring Robbie Coltrane that broke new ground by introducing audiences to the consulting criminal psychologist. And such a figure might be called upon to explain just what McGovern is up to with a series about, it seems, the sexual politics of high-stakes love affairs spanning eight days. And while set in Australia’s first colony, it could, as McGovern has said, just as easily have taken place on the moon.
The first episode is set in the first days of the colony, when the settlement is still surrounded by dense bush; giant crocodiles (yes, I kid you not) are lurking in one of the rivers that flow into Sydney Cove, and huge black spiders crawl across the convict men’s quarters. (Exteriors were shot on Turimetta Beach near Manly, just outside Sydney, and interiors in a disused abattoir in Manchester.)
We find ourselves in the middle of a love story, with little idea who these characters are, as Thomas Barratt (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and Elizabeth Quinn ( MyAnna Buring) battle the oppressive regime established by Governor Arthur Phillip (David Wenham), which forbids convicts from having sexual relations with one another unless they are married.
The plot spins a little giddily on the historically fanciful notion that soldiers were given “first rights” to the convict women, who are forced to use their bodies in order to survive. The marine commander, Major Robert Ross (Joseph Millson), reminds the men that “convict women belong to my soldiers”, and “on pain of death, you do not touch a woman”.
Elizabeth has spent the night with Thomas in the men’s barracks and when she is caught by the marines and almost raped, she refuses to disclose the name of her lover, preferring to suffer a flogging than see him executed. They want to marry, but both have spouses at home, and the chaplain refuses to sanction bigamy. Thomas takes a stand, declaring himself ready to be hanged, rather than abandon the woman he loves to one of the lecherous marines.
McGovern has left few social issues untouched in a long television career. His recent works such as The Street, Accused and Redfern Now, on which he was credited as story producer, blended the serial structure of soap opera and its seemingly eternal suspension of narrative resolution with the voyeurism and awkwardness of reality TV. These dramas were characterised by their taut storytelling, highlighting how easily lives turn on quirks of fate. McGovern has an interest in the moral dilemmas that emerge as consequences of mistakes, unwise choices and personal weakness, and while there are elements of those ideas in Banished, it works as high-end melodramatic soap opera (Rhind-Tutt calls it “Home and Away on acid”) and is not necessarily to be disdained for that, even if it takes some breathtaking liberties with fact.
The series, we are told, is inspired by historical events — though perhaps it is better described as reimagined, to use the currently popular term that gives producers and scriptwriters an excuse to tell stories drawn from history without having to worry about accuracy. Banished at times seems more like science fiction, a Twilight Zone episode about an ugly parallel universe set in a time only vaguely resembling the beginnings of Australia, its new inhabitants living in slavery, bound by iron chains.
McGovern seems to have inverted one of Sydney’s favourite urban legends, the so-called “myth of Sydney’s foundation orgy”, originally apparently promulgated by Manning Clarke (but later recanted), the modern version of which was popularised more raunchily in Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore. The story is of the convict women coming ashore on February 6, 1788, and, no sooner landing on the antipodean beach, they and the convict men engage in mass sexual congress, fuelled by rum. Hughes has them bestially “rutting” in the red clay, “the women floundered to and fro, draggled as muddy chickens under a pump, pursued by male convicts intent on raping them”. The orgy story is about rape, and, as historian Grace Karskens argues, it’s told as a kind of rough comedy about loose whores and randy drunken men, a mythic tale that has become deeply embedded in the Sydney male psyche.
McGovern kind of flip-flops the myth, with strict regulations prohibiting sexual relations between convicts; the convict women sex slaves, the currency of the occupied state, the only way to stop the mistreated soldiers from rebelling. “My men are all volunteers; they are 10,000 miles from home in a godforsaken corner of a godforsaken country across a godforsaken ocean,” Ross says. “They barely eat or drink; take away their women and they will rebel.”
McGovern’s reference to David Milch’s Deadwood is telling, and Banished seems to be working out of a similar notion to the western: that society and its organised processes of law are incapable of bringing about true justice when people are thrust into an alien environment and must build a community from first principles. Milch set his epic series in the ungoverned 1870s mining camp of Deadwood, South Dakota, a muddy, lawless dump of corruption and decadence, and he reinvented the sanitised classic western to explore the reality of the unruly frontier. The drama he created was about people improvising the structures of governance in an environment that was the abrogation of everything but brute force. In Banished, Governor Phillip, persuasively played by Wenham with a rather delightful foppish upper-crust accent, is almost the only voice of reason — apart from some of the women — putting himself on the same rations as his charges, and already it seems from the conclusion to the first chapter, starting to develop his utopian ideal of democratic equality and social justice. Now, that’s history at least. “No time to marry, no time to settle down; I’m a young woman, and I ain’t done runnin’ around,” the great blues singer Bessie Smith famously
Bessie, said. And in the HBO biopic Bessie, starring the formidable Queen Latifah and directed by the acclaimed indie filmmaker Dee Rees ( Pariah), Latifah serves her well in a film that’s full of Bessie’s energy.
It’s raw and musical, and often joyfully bawdy, wonderfully theatrical without the withering breath of artiness, even if it’s a bit disjointed and lacking in focus, seemingly in a hurry to feature as many vignettes as possible in two hours. (Beautifully conjured they are too by production designer Clark Hunter, with splendid costumes by Michael T. Boyd that almost walk away with the show.) There are so many episodes in Bessie’s unruly life that the movie seems to simply run out of time.
But while the film was 22 years in the making, and falls away in conclusion (no mention of the famous car crash that killed her), it starts with a rush — Bessie singing and dancing in the black minstrel theatres of the time, reliving painful memories of her difficult past as she escapes poverty through show business, images of loss and bereavement haunting her. And along the way, as if to make up for the unhappiness, she happily flouts any social convention that gets in her way, kissing men and women with lascivious passion. This is a gal with sport in her strut and loads of hoop-dee-do who ain’t prepared to play second fiddle to nobody and she soon leaves “the thirdrate backdoors” of show business behind.
She has a way of turning the bad times into the good ones, delights in singing about liberated women, and will punch in the mouth any man who dares call her “a fat bitch”. If other black women built their lives relegated to cleaning houses or teaching school, this wasn’t Bessie’s way, and Rees’s movie celebrates not the tragic figure who died in a car crash but a woman of nobility.
Queen Latifah makes Bessie’s unruly but powerful life her own, as emotionally vulnerable as she is sexy and bombastic, and her blues singing is splendid — the right humour in the phrasing, the delight in the double entendres, the soul in rough-cut country blues — a liberator singing for her folks. That’s also history.
David Wenham as Governor Arthur Phillip in
top; Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith in left