Writer Jimmy McGovern of­fers some fan­ci­ful twists on Syd­ney’s first set­tle­ment

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

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

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