Grace Dent on TV: Jimmy McGovern's Banished sheds light on sex slavery, leaves us feeling decidedly woebegone

'I both love and resent Jimmy McGovern for opening up this murky matter'

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Jimmy McGovern’s Banished left me, after 15 minutes, feeling decidedly woebegone. I’d thought, rather foolishly, that at my age I’d discovered and ruminated upon most of man’s greatest inhumanities towards man.

Stupid me. I’d overlooked the beginnings of Australia and the matter of 18th-century New South Wales penal colonies.

We really are awful, evil b******s. Until Banished – a seven-parter, the first of which aired this week – the Royal Navy’s grim mission of dragging convicts to the farthest side of the world felt, to me at least, like a footnote in time. Something that one might saunter past in a museum while looking for proper history. I both love and resent McGovern for opening up this murky matter, while shoving actors like Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey into the lead roles to hook me even further.

McGovern asks us to consider simple questions like: “If we loaded men and women on to these ships, and presumably many of the women were convicted ‘whores’, then what do you imagine happened to these women once the ship had sailed?”

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Orla Brady as Anne Meredith, MyAnna Buring as Elizabeth Quinn and Joanna Vanderham as Katherine McVitie in Banished (BBC)

Banished tackles – darkly, unsqueamishly – the fact that women prisoners were little more than sex slaves. “Can I shag your one for some rice?” “Can I have a go after you?” “Line them up and we’ll all choose the one we want as a ‘girlfriend’.”

It opened with a scene in which the convict Elizabeth fought off a rapist soldier. “Just let me do this,” shouted Private Buckley, matter-of-factly, as if he were a dentist trying to examine the molars of a troublesome patient.

From then on, McGovern whisked us through rape in a dozen differing forms. We saw the soldiers who granted food or water to starving girls in return for sex. We winced at the constant threat of random attack from male convicts with nothing more to lose. We watched as Major Ross sent out his no-choice invitations of a night in his bed. Say “yes”, or watch people you love go to the gallows.

The rape focus of Banished will no doubt put off many viewers, but I’d argue that it’s an important subject to keep chipping away at over the seven episodes. Without this Banished would be, largely, a castaway adventure with added manly suffering.

MyAnna Buring is beguiling as Elizabeth Quinn, a bright woman living by her wiles, or, in the Navy’s eyes, an expendable prostitute and a drain on rice resources. Yes, Elizabeth is a “tart with a heart” role, but the point is that these tarts were human beings with hearts, and minds, and worth.

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Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished' (BBC)

Episode two brings a love affair between the rather earnest Private Macdonald and the dainty teen convict Katherine. Katherine, a former maid, has been framed by a jealous aristocratic wife who, on discovering the teen being sexually assaulted by her lout lord husband, accuses her of stealing money. McGovern prods us to imagine how many Australian ancestors were the victims of scores being settled and the fallout of class war.

It would be easier to take Banished more seriously as a record of man’s inhumanity if everyone wasn’t so damn good-looking. Or if the corsets weren’t so gorgeously fitted on to slender forms. On this matter McGovern, I venture, will have known he was fighting a losing battle. This is BBC2 on a Thursday evening, for crying out loud.

If we’re going to watch Elizabeth Quinn being flogged with a leather strap until her back is covered with deep, bloody, rivulets, then she must be clad in a perfectly tailored “wench” outfit.

Russell Tovey as the lovable James Freeman looks as fresh as a juice-diet gym-bunny. Julian Rhind-Tutt – whom I’d watch reading out the Farrow and Ball catalogue – looked more dishevelled in BBC2’s Hippies.

We join the convicts two weeks into their hellish subhuman existence, living in a sun-battered sandstorm, tormented by tarantulas. No one has sunburn, flaking legs, chapped lips or even hair tangled more than a “bed-head”. Blame Sky Atlantic’s Game of Thrones for this folly.

We want our period dramas to be gritty and gruelling, but we want everyone to look shaggable. Without having watched all seven episodes, it is hard to predict where Banished will go, other than towards a mass of more misery, then, eventually, the birth of Australia.

In the opening episodes McGovern has created a tenuous world that can only survive if the Navy believes that it is doing sterling work, that its beatings and hangings are righteous.

 

Yet by episode two, the Reverend Johnson (Ewan Bremner) has started to wonder if God is really so enthusiastic about all of these executions. The soldiers are falling in love with the whores, whom they now see are lovely women. The Governor is being apologetic about the food-rationing and he’s giving his blessing to prisoner weddings to keep up morale.

Even the worst, most hate-worthy major is having moments of introspection – after sexually assaulting the female prisoners – as to whether his behaviour is sporting. One of McGovern’s chief lessons to us in Banished is that the enemy of inhumanity is basic common sense.

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