Banished: Why the new societies we build on screen are better in theory than in practice

Jimmy McGovern's new BBC drama is set in a New South Wales penal colony established in 1788 by 1,000 British convicts, marines and seamen

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The Independent Culture

Imagine what it would be like to start all over again, in an alien world, with an unfamiliar climate and build a new community from scratch. Luckily you don't have to join the suicidal crew of the Mars One mission to find out. This week on BBC2, a new drama series explores a similar scenario which took place right here on Earth, back in January 1788 when 1,000 British convicts, marines and seamen landed in New South Wales. The penal colony they built there is the setting for Jimmy McGovern’s new seven-part drama, Banished.

Ripper Street's Myanna Buring stars as sharp-tonged Elizabeth Quinn whose relationship with fellow convict Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind-Tutt) puts both their lives in danger. Russell Tovey gives his usual lovable dope an 18th century twist as their friend James Freeman and Australian actor David Wenham plays Governor Arthur Phillip, whose job it is to turn this ramshackle penal colony into an outpost of real civilisation.

McGovern’s drama might be the first time this particular story has found its way onto British television, but the survival of small groups in adverse circumstance is an enduringly popular theme. It’s in teen sci-fi like E4's The 100 and pessimistic horror such as The Walking Dead, which makes audiences wonder whether human society is really worth all the effort of survival. The frontier spirit also underpins plenty of reality survival programmes ranging from the silly 10,000 BC on Channel 5 to the BBC’s more serious-minded Castaway 2000. And clearly TV personality Bear Grylls would have been a hardy homesteader in some far-flung corner, if only he hand’t been born about two hundred years too late.

It’s not a real detail from history which poses the biggest threat to harmony in this community, but an invention of the writer's own imagination - a custom whereby soldiers reserve the convict women exclusively for their own "use". Meanwhile, the one historical fact which still overshadows the legacy of Australia's first colonists has been deliberately side-stepped; their treatment of the people who were already living there. "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," said McGovern."Ten minutes per episode would just have been an insult."

The appeal of colony shows is usually in how they allow us to observe a fledgling society as it functions or fails, only without the attendant risks of death, disease and disaster. So by fictionalising many of the most challenging parts of the real Botany Bay colony and focusing instead on character, Banished is taking a risk. Will it work? As will most such experiments, you’ll have to stick around to find out.

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