On the 26 January 1788, at the sweltering height of the antipodean summer and after an eight-month sea voyage by way of Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, 11 ships anchored off the coast of New South Wales near to what would eventually become the city of Sydney. The two Royal Navy escorts helped unload its cargo – 100 soldiers, scores of sheep, goats and chickens, and (last and very much least) an emaciated, rag-tag collection of just over 1,000 men, women and children who had been found guilty of crimes back in Britain; convicted felons – the first white Australians.
Robert Hughes's 1986 book The Fatal Shore captured the horrors of the convict transportation system, but it seems extraordinary – especially given the amount of dramas made about the first settlers in America – that British and Australian filmmakers have largely ignored the initial colonisation of Australia. But now Jimmy McGovern (Hillsborough, Cracker, The Street) has finally corrected this curious omission, and his new seven-part BBC2 series, Banished, focuses on some of the men and women of the so-called First Fleet.
"Australians have done things about bushrangers, Ned Kelly and things, but it's only very recently that it's become fashionable to have a convict in your family history," says McGovern. "Until just a few years back it was a mark of shame. And I think that's why Australian writers have never really tackled this period."
He initially became interested in the first European settlers when he was invited by the Australian filmmaker Mac Gudgeon to take part in a writers' workshop about indigenous people. "We wanted to tell the story of the first meeting between black man and white man in Australia… he was going to tell it from the Aboriginal perspective and I was going to tell it from the perspective of the white man," says McGovern. "We ended up with two good scripts, but it never got made. The BBC baulked about doing a story about Aboriginal people – why should they? It's the British Broadcasting Corporation, after all.
"It wasn't made but I had one of the best stories I've come across in my life and it's about how Australia got its first hangman. They needed a hangman and it couldn't be a soldier – they had to get a convict to agree to be a hangman. But the convicts had a code of honour – a lot of them, after all, had stood on the gallows before been reprieved to go to Australia."
McGovern's series takes place during the fortnight after the First Fleet's arrival in New South Wales – with an equally tightly focused cast of characters, including two based on real-life convicts James Freeman (played by Russell Tovey from Being Human and Him & Her) and Thomas Barrett (Julian Rhind Tutt). Freeman, who was 21 when he was transported to Australia, was a small-time highwayman from St Albans, while Barrett was a 26-year-old forger who was exiled for stealing a watch. His engraving of the HMS Charlotte – commissioned by the ship's doctor, etched on to a surgeon's kidney dish and considered Australia's first piece of colonial art – sold for A$750,000 when it went up for auction in 2008.
Although these characters are based on real people, their stories have been fictionalised to maintain a dramatic intensity. "They will be more aware in Australia of the liberties I've taken with their history," says McGovern. "But I go all the way back to Wagon Train [the television Western from the 1950s] which told the stories of people going from the East Coast of America over to the West Coast. All that stuff was factual but the stories were fiction. Or more recently you could look at Deadwood, which was a terrific series."
Australian actor David Wenham plays Admiral Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales and a name familiar to all Australians for his role in founding modern Australia. An enlightened Royal Naval officer who had already managed the not inconsiderable feat of leading the 11 small ships to the other end of the earth with minimal casualties (the superior quality of the food fed to the convicts kept scurvy at bay until late into the voyage), he was also a fair and long-sighted administrator.
"If you do not work, you do not eat, if you do not eat you die," McGovern has Phillip telling the convicts with a brutal simplicity that might appeal to the more lunatic fringes of the Conservative Party. But he was also egalitarian and just. When food was scarce in the early days he insisted that convicts and soldiers alike, including himself, should receive the same rations. And after they had served their sentence, he was happy for them to pursue their own ambitions.
"He believed you could atone," says McGovern. "If they wanted to stay he gave them land; but the justice of the time was quite draconian. If you stole food you were hanged. It had to be that way – food was so scarce."
Convicts had originally been transported to the crown's 13 North American colonies, but the War of Independence put paid to that, and in 1785 Orders in Council were issued in London to set up a penal colony in New South Wales – on land claimed by James Cook 15 years earlier. The outside scenes of Banished were filmed on Turimetta Beach in Manly Dam, just outside Sydney. "It's shot right next door to where it all happened," says McGovern, adding that: "The interiors were all shot in a disused abattoir in Manchester."
Among the first settlers were a 70-year-old woman accused of stealing 12lb of Gloucestershire cheese, a young woman who had stolen some underwear, and men caught stealing fish from ponds. The youngest was a nine-year-old boy, the oldest an 82-year-old woman. "Like I said, it's become incredibly fashionable to have convicts in the family," says McGovern. "They [Australians] try to say there is a convict in my family because he [my ancestor] stood up to a lord of the manor – that it was political – whereas in reality they were all petty thieves and whores. But nothing that deserved transporting… no."
McGovern's sense of social justice runs through Banished. The former teacher from a large working-class Catholic family in Liverpool began his writing career on the Channel 4 soap Brookside, dealing with issues such as the mass unemployment of the 1980s, and focusing on the Catholic Grant family.
In the following decade he created Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane as the criminal psychologist with a gambling addiction, and The Lakes, in which John Simm played an unemployed petty thief embroiled in tragedy in a Lake District that was a million, social-realist miles from that of William Wordsworth's daffodils and lonely clouds.
His campaigning works have included Hillsborough (his damning docu-drama about the events surrounding the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster, and debunking the police's version of events), Sunday (about the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry), Priest (turning his fire on the Catholic church) and Hearts and Minds (based on his experiences of the Liverpool education system). McGovern's 2014 drama Common followed a similar theme with its exposé of how the police are misusing the Joint Enterprise Law, while his social conscience is fully evident in his two award-winning and highly popular BBC1 anthology series The Street and The Accused.
And it was The Street, which followed the inter-linked stories of residents in an unnamed thoroughfare in Salford, that indirectly took McGovern back to Australia. "The head of the indigenous unit at ABC in Australia invited me over to work with Aboriginal people on an Aboriginal version of The Street," he says. "We couldn't do it because ITV [who co-owned the rights with McGovern] started asking for stupid money, so we abandoned that and the head of the indigenous unit came up with Redfern Now [about various indigenous people living in the Sydney suburb of Redfern]. It was the first ever exclusively Aboriginal TV drama series; the directors, writers and producers were all Aboriginal."
Although the first settlers had well-documented encounters with the Aboriginal people – Admiral Phillip himself being speared on Manly Beach – McGovern decided to omit the original Australians because he felt that he couldn't do justice to their story here. "It is difficult to exaggerate how important it is to get the portrayal of indigenous Australians right," he says.
"The time frame of Banished is very short – something just over two weeks. Hopefully if there is another series there would be time to collaborate and get representation right."
But McGovern wouldn't be McGovern if there wasn't a strong element of social critique in Banished. "It's obvious if you look at Australia that crime is a result of your environment; if you are skint, if you are oppressed, the likelihood is that you will resort to crime," he says. "At that time it was thought that crime runs in families, but if it's anything to do with genes, or history, Australia should be the most crime-ridden society in the world because they were all descended from convicts. But it's not; it's one of the safest places in the world."
McGovern doesn't often give interviews, often preferring to share the media spotlight with the many younger writers he has mentored over the years. But he is justly proud of Banished. "I am absolutely in love with this drama series," he says. "I think it's the best thing I've ever done."
'Banished' begins on BBC2 on Thursday at 9pmReuse content