A fragile penal colony outpost is the setting for Banished, writes Lydia Jenkin.

Among the gum trees and eucalyptus, looking out over the tranquil Manly Dam, hearing the cacophony of birdlife, warmed by the afternoon sun, it feels like an idyllic spot.

Even walking through the penal colony set, where rustic huts with paperbark roofs are scattered among convict tents, when dusk falls and the lanterns are lit, it feels more like a nice spot for some springtime glamping than a dangerous hellhole.

But for the first fleet of British soldiers and convicts, banished to the other side of the world, the reality of their new home was pretty grim.

"There are snakes, spiders, you could drown, or starve, there's the constant threat of the gallows or the whipping post," says actress MyAnna Buring, as we sit down at a picnic table just to the side of the set.

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"We're always waiting with bated breath to get the scripts and see which one of us might die," she adds with a laugh.

Buring (Downton Abbey and Ripper Street), along with Russell Tovey (Being Human, Sherlock), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Green Wing, The Hour), and David Wenham (Top of the Lake, SeaChange) - are the four main players in the new BBC miniseries Banished. All chat with TimeOut while dressed in costume. Wenham is regal-looking in his governor's uniform, while the rest are ragged and dusty as downtrodden convicts.

"I won't shake your hand," says Rhind-Tutt as he glances down at his grubby fingernails and knuckles. "It's hard work being a dirty prisoner." He grins.

Banished tells the story of these First Fleet convicts, and the soldiers sent with them, over a tightly focused period of 10 days after the ships land in Botany Bay in 1788.

It's a fictional melodrama that revolves around the personal tribulations of these early settlers, rather than a history lesson, but the miniseries from Cracker writer Jimmy McGovern is still heavily based on fact.

Banished stars David Wenham as Governor Arthur Phillip.
Banished stars David Wenham as Governor Arthur Phillip.

Wenham plays Governor Arthur Phillip, the much-written-about real Royal Navy officer who was the founder of the penal colony. Buring, Tovey and Rhind-Tutt also play characters whose names can be found in prisoner lists, even if little is known about them.

"We were given a few details," explains Buring, "but we've created some ourselves. Elizabeth Quinn was convicted for punching a woman, and it turned out she was a duchess - but that's all I know about it, so I've created a further backstory, to rationalise that punch for myself."

Like many of the real convicts in the First Fleet, the characters are mostly guilty of what we'd now consider petty crimes.

"I play James Freeman, a pickpocket who's ended up here, having chosen this over hanging. And he's facing 14 years or something like that," says Tovey, "but I think he's definitely holding on to the idea that one day he will be a free man.

"He stole for the reason that most people do - desperation. He was a bit of a scallywag, down on his luck, who just wanted a bit of that silk handkerchief to sell."

"And I'm something like a gambling man who's also a man of honour," says Rhind-Tutt of his character Tommy Barrett. "He's a cardshark who's well acquainted with a rougher side of life, but who has a steely honour and high moral values."

They've all done their homework, discovering some startling information which makes the survival of the colony seem even more impressive.

 Russell Tovey in BBC series Banished.
Russell Tovey in BBC series Banished.

"One of the hilarious facts that stood out to me was that they sent 700 men, and 200 soldiers, and they sent them with only five or six scythes, and said, 'Start a farming community.' I mean, really?" says Rhind-Tutt. "There's a bit of a conspiracy theory that they weren't really at all bothered about what would happen to these convicts and soldiers."

One man who was clearly bothered was Governor Phillip, who took his leading role very seriously.

"He's probably the character who I would describe as having the most moral dilemmas," says Wenham. "He's the head of establishing this new colony, and he has to make very tough decisions for the greater good of everybody there. And because this is essentially frontier land, the rules that applied in England didn't necessarily apply here."

Religious principles push up against legal principles, practical needs and sensible, empathetic reasoning. And of course those are trumped by their simple need to survive.

"They're on the other side of the Earth in a world that's unknown, dangerous territory, they're slowly starving, there are things here that can kill people at the drop of a hat and Jimmy McGovern is really interested in what that does to people, that kind of pressure."

Whether the characters are dealing with the complications of illicit love, the inner struggle of whether to betray fellow convicts by "grassing", or even the simple rage of having your daily rations stolen by the bullying blacksmith (played by Game of Thrones' Hound, Rory McCann), emotions run high, and that's what drew all the actors to the series.

Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind-Tutt in the BBC series Banished.
Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind-Tutt in the BBC series Banished.

"Jimmy's very clever in that, in a fast-moving page-turning drama, he's packed in a lot of different crises and dilemmas from various different angles, whether you're a sadistic soldier or a suffering convict," says Rhind-Tutt. "It's not black and white, it's red and orange and dirty."

The Aboriginal question

There has been some controversy surrounding the absence of Aboriginal characters in Banished. There was contact between the indigenous people and the First Fleet from early on, but show creator Jimmy McGovern, who had worked with Aboriginal writers and actors in the past on Australian series Redfern Now, decided not to include them.

He explained to the Sydney Morning Herald: "I can understand how people would find it strange that a drama about British settlement of Australia wouldn't show any Aboriginal people.

But Banished is not a drama about the settlement of Australia, it is not a broad, sweeping colonial history. Instead it concentrates on a specific set of fictional events, which take place over a couple of weeks within the confines of the camp ...

"I chose not to include any Aboriginal characters as I was clear that story needed to be told properly, and that indigenous people shouldn't be included in a tokenistic way as simply background characters."

Who: The cast of BBC miniseries Banished - David Wenham, MyAnna Buring, Russell Tovey, Julian Rhind-Tutt.
Where and when: Screening on UKTV from Friday, June 26 at 8.30pm

- TimeOut