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Dramatising Australia’s Colonisation

White Men’s Stories in Banished (BBC/Foxtel) and The Secret River (ABC TV)


Since the 1990s Gallipoli has come to signify the nation’s involvement in the First World War and the birth of its ostensibly true national character. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Australian historical television in 2015, the centenary year of the much-mythologised Gallipoli landing, has been preoccupied with stories of the war. Amid the endless First World War depictions and dissections, however, were two pieces of historical television that offered viewers an alternative Australian beginning. The historical dramas Banished (BBC/Foxtel) and The Secret River (ABC TV) portrayed the colonisation of New South Wales, a relatively unusual focus for Australian historical television in the twenty-first century.1

The Secret River was a highly-anticipated production based on Kate Grenville’s 2005 historical novel.2 Grenville’s novel was a phenomenon: a popular, controversial, and prize-winning best-seller that spawned two further novels and a theatrical production before its miniseries.3 The story is loosely based on the life of Grenville’s ancestor Solomon Wiseman, and follows encounters between settlers and Indigenous peoples along the Hawkesbury River in 1810. Banished, in contrast, arrived on Australian screens unexpectedly. A BBC production written by the well-known screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, Banished was first screened in the UK to mixed reviews.4 The seven-part series depicted two weeks at Sydney Cove in 1788, focusing on the daily struggles of the convict population. It had a wider purchase in Australia than its screening on the cable network Foxtel might suggest, mostly because of its puzzling exclusion of Indigenous characters. A second season – this time with Indigenous storylines – was intended for 2016, but was then abandoned.5

Although telling similar stories of British colonisation in Australia, the two productions are very different. In The Secret River the central drama of Australia’s origins is the clash between European and Indigenous peoples over land. The emancipated convict William Thornhill (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) claims land along the banks of the Hawkesbury, settling there with his wife Sal (Sarah Snook) and their children. Although Sal longs for a return to London, Will is intoxicated by the land along the river, which he names Thornhill’s Point. For Will the land is an opportunity for wealth, stability, and freedom: “That’s my pardon”, he says to Sal, “and there ain’t no other damn freedom like it”. But his desire for it cannot erase Indigenous ownership, and the Thornhills’ presence along the Hawkesbury does not easily displace the local Dharug peoples. A sense of inevitability fuels the subsequent violent conflict between Will and the other Hawkesbury settlers and the local peoples. A bloody and visceral massacre of Indigenous men, women and children is The Secret River’s climactic scene, and its aftermath is full of metaphorical significance for the contemporary Australian nation.

As my re-telling of the miniseries perhaps suggests, The Secret River is a beautiful piece of historical television. Its self-conscious sense of importance is enticing, although for viewers with a substantial knowledge of Australia’s past there isn’t much new here. The high production values and quality cast reference the landmark period dramas of the Revival of the Australian film industry in the 1970s and 1980s.6 And there are moments that evoke other images of Australian identity, suggesting a production very deliberately engaged in a national project. These gestures explain why scholars often connect television with national identity; The Secret River seems to take this connection very seriously.7

The Secret River’s nation-making project was reinforced by discussions of the miniseries in the Australian media, where it was lauded as a ground-breaking account of Australia’s origins, a “sumptuous”, “accurate”, “nuanced”, “remarkable”, and “courageous” rendering of an “uncomfortable” history.8 Graeme Blundell echoed many of the reviews when he called the production “seriously good television” that did “full justice” to Grenville’s novel.9 Indeed, Paul Daley placed the miniseries at the centre of an anticipated national “reckoning” with this past.10 This kind of congratulatory commentary was widespread but not universal: Scott Rankin, for example, described The Secret River – as miniseries, play, and novel – as a “dangerous” text that turns non-Indigenous histories of encounter into “the history” of encounter, effectively and problematically sidelining Indigenous per spectives.11 But most discussion emphasised The Secret River’s importance, and strong audience numbers suggested viewers agreed.12

Banished received a very different treatment. The series was derided in reviews and commentary in the UK and Australia. It was called a “grubby little drama” that pours on melodrama “more thickly than the tv crew’s sun cream”.13 Its storylines were likened to the worst of reality television, akin to ‘I’m a Convict Get Me Out of Here’.14 And Ruth Ritchie suggested a more appropriate title for the series might have been ‘True Love Amidst a Good Flogging’.15 In Australia the strongest criticisms were over the lack of Indigenous characters, a criticism so widespread that it prompted McGovern to pen a defence in the Sydney Morning Herald.16 Troy Bramston’s condemnation of the “glaring omission” of Indigenous Australians from the story as “simply unbelievable” encapsulated much of the extensive public commentary.17

The absence of Indigenous characters makes Banished very odd viewing, made even more odd by the sometime focus on Governor Arthur Phillip (David Wenham), whose relationships with the local Eora peoples are well-known; by a storyline that includes a main character, James Freeman (Russell Tovey), absconding from the settlement and into the bush; and by acknowledgements of thanks to the ‘Guringai People’ and the ‘Dharawal Nation’ in the series credits. McGovern offered several explanations, including the added time and cost of including Indigenous stories, the storyline’s short two-week timeframe, and the series’ British origins.18 But none of these explanations seemed even close to sufficient in 2015-Australia, and the notion that the story of British settler colonialism for British audiences doesn’t require Indigenous peoples was frankly alarming. McGovern’s comments emphasised, however, what was already clear from the series itself: that according to the makers of Banished the central drama of Australia’s colonisation was not the clash between European settlers and Indigenous peoples, but the clash between convicts and colonial authorities.

To this end, Banished puts the brutality and injustice of the British penal system on full display. The key challenge of the settlement at Sydney Cove, as depicted in this series, was the creation of a governable colony. This was achieved in part through sexual slavery: Banished discourages rebellion amongst the soldiers by assigning each one a female convict. Equally important for the control of the colony is the control of the convicts themselves, particularly the series’ three main protagonists: Freeman, Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and Barrett’s wife Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring). These three continually refuse the brutality and arbitrariness of colonial authority in the settlement by challenging those in positions of power. Their refusals are ultimately to no avail, and the possibility of rebellion is violently foreclosed by the hanging of Barrett at the hands of Freeman. This dramatic conclusion to the series marks the reassertion of colonial authority over the convict population.

Banished has the feel of a production from a different time: a kind of Fatal Shore meets Damned Whores and God’s Police take on Australia’s colonisation.19 In this as much as anything else it is in sharp contrast to The Secret River, which suggests more recent historical influences.20 It is also more difficult to take Banished seriously as historical television. There are only so many heightened evasions of the scaffold one series can take, and the constant use of the beach as the setting for scenes of drama or poignancy – it is even the location of the colony’s graveyard – makes good actor Rhind-Tutt’s description of Banished as “Home and Away on acid”.21 And yet, when watching it alongside The Secret River, I was most struck by their similarities. Both are interested in Australia’s colonial beginnings, which they characterise as brutal, cruel, and unforgiving. Both pursue this past through fictional means in ways that are likely to invite historians’ displeasure. And both narrate their pasts in similar ways. In their understandings of Indigenous peoples, their developments of key romantic relationships, and their characterisations of white male settlers, Banished and The Secret River are not so different after all.

The lack of Indigenous characters in Banished does not translate into a complete erasure of Indigenous presence, and the way in which the series represents Indigeneity is revealing.22 Almost all the series’ main characters mention “the natives”, and contact and conflict with Indigenous peoples is an imagined experience of the penal colony. The vicious and damaged Private Buckley (Adam Nagaitis), for example, expected the colony to be “Native women, all naked, all carrying armfuls of fruit, all wanting to fuck me”. More typically Indigenous peoples are something to be feared. As Phillip explains in the first and last episode of the series, part of the role of the soldiers is to protect the colony from the threat of Indigenous attack. Yet the soldiers themselves are reluctant to chase after the absconding Freeman precisely because of their own fears. The death of a soldier from snakebite – the implausible result of running rather than walking through the bush – is explained in a letter home as a heroic death during an Indigenous attack. This fabricated attack is one of many scenes where the absence of Indigenous characters is at its most jarring. Even so, it does make clear that Indigenous peoples are a spectre for administrators, soldiers and convicts alike.

This representation is surprisingly similar to that of The Secret River, where Indigenous peoples are a threatening and worrying presence. When they first arrive at Thornhill’s Point, the Thornhill children wonder whether “the blacks” will eat them. The family’s first encounter is an unsettling scene of danger: five Dharug men arrive at the Point wielding spears and accompanied only by the sound of the bush. The sense of menace is compounded not long after by the murderous Smasher Sullivan (Tim Minchin):

There are all sorts of stories up and down the river about their mischief. Scalped two men alive by South Creek. Took a child out of its cradle, slit its little throat and sucked it dry up at Greenhills.

Perhaps adding to the fearful atmosphere is the sense that Indigenous peoples might not be the inferior “savages” The Secret River’s settlers had imagined. When the Thornhills clear land to plant their crop they clear away Dharug plantings of “yams”. This disruption explains the initial hostility of the local peoples, but also characterises them as farmers, which is reinforced by the sympathetic Thomas Blackwood’s (Lachy Hulme) explanation of their “clever” version of hunting using fire. Sal notices Indigenous women at their camp sweeping and weaving “just like we did back home”, and explains to Will that “they’re just like us”. Medicine provided by an Indigenous woman saves Sal from “the fever”. The local Dharug men are better able to make fire, to mimic Will’s speech, and to trade with the Thornhills to their advantage. And the local peoples’ relationship with the land trumps even Will’s desires: “It’s theirs Will”, Sal says after a Dharug group led by Greybeard/Gumang (Trevor Jamieson) set fire to the corn, “always ’as been. That’s why they come and go, they’ve been doing it forever”.

A similar sensibility can be found in Banished, albeit in less detail. The unseen “natives” are to blame for the shredding of the colony’s fishing nets, a destructive but effective attempt to safeguard their own food supply. More interesting is Freeman’s encounter with another absconder, Jefferson (Tim McCunn). Freeman flees the colony to escape punishment for the murder of another convict. He comes across Jefferson alone in the bush. It is a scene where the absence of Indigenous characters borders on bizarre: it’s clear local peoples have helped Jefferson to survive, but it is only Jefferson we see. Jefferson is unexpectedly hostile to Freeman, and as he gives chase he explains Indigenous hunting practices: “Freeman! I will smoke you out, that’s how the natives catch a kangaroo. They set the bush alight, kangaroo comes running from the fire, straight on the native’s spear”.

The treatment of Indigenous Australia in Banished is more elision than erasure, and occasional references to the ‘natives’ make their absence more rather than less visible. One of the effects of the lack of characters, however, is to render Indigenous peoples as inscrutable, as beyond the understanding either of the series or of its protagonists. Something very similar happens in The Secret River, even with its different dramatic focus. Indigenous characters talk almost exclusively in language, and their behaviour and intention is often inferred rather than explained. They frequently walk through scenes without any reference to the Thornhills, who they look through as if they are not even there. Even when Will confronts a group of Dharug who have taken his corn – Will enraged, shotgun at his side, improbably explaining the inevitability of colonisation – the group only pauses briefly before continuing along their way. Indigenous peoples might be a larger feature of The Secret River, but in a way their lives and experiences are no more comprehensible than they are in Banished. In both series, it is the everyday lives and struggles of settlers that are the main focus.

This is in no way surprising: although there are clear differences in the dramatisation of colonisation in The Secret River and Banished, both are most interested in the European experience, and particularly in the experience of the transported. Strong romantic relationships between the main characters are key to their depictions of everyday life. In both productions these relationships are foundational, influencing storylines and driving character development. Watching as an historian they are distractingly contemporary, with the characteristics often associated with romantic relationships at the turn of the twenty-first century: they are exclusive, erotic, overwhelming, and transform ative.23 Researchers sometimes characterise the romantic ideal encoded in this twenty-first century relationship as in excess, and they worry about the implications of such high expectations for romantic love.24 But in the worlds of Banished and The Secret River these relationships are essential to life in colonial New South Wales.

It makes sense, then, that there is an intensity to the romantic relationships of both The Secret River and Banished. In each production romantic partners are devoted to one another, although in The Secret River this devotion plays out with a little more subtlety. The Thornhills are equal partners who are affectionate, playful, loving, argumentative, and content. The miniseries opens with their arrival at Sydney Cove. As a dishevelled Will is rowed ashore, Sal can be heard yelling his name from another longboat. Once on the beach she forces her way towards him in desperation. When she reaches him her purpose becomes clear: she has found a way to have Will assigned to her. Later we learn that Sal was responsible for the conversion of Will’s sentence from death to transportation. Will’s feelings for Sal sometimes seem a little less passionately felt in comparison, but even so they are a strong presence. When Sal is ill with a “fever”, for example, Will sends his eldest son Willie (Rory Potter) off for help while he stays behind to nurse her, turning to prayer in his desperation to keep her alive. Even Will’s involvement in The Secret River’s massacre, which poisons his relationship with his other son Dickie (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), can not undo their bond: the miniseries ends with them in later years, distant but still affectionate, reminiscing about London.

The romantic relationships of Banished are similarly intense, although the consequences of this intensity are more melodramatically felt. The series begins and ends with the relationship between Barrett and Quinn. Barrett is dangerously devoted to Quinn. From the very first episode it is clear that he is willing – even eager – to hang for her. He is fiercely and murderously protective of her as a result: he strangles the unpopular convict Marston (Rory McCann) in a rage at Marston’s treatment of her, and viciously attacks Private Buckley after realising he and Quinn had a sexual liaison. Barrett’s attack on Buckley leads him to the scaffold, where he refuses a hood “because I wanted your face to be the last thing I saw, the face I loved more than anything else in the world”. Quinn’s love for Barrett is less dangerous, but no less intense. She trades sexual favours with Buckley precisely to try to protect Barrett from punishment for their clandestine relationship. And she distracts him from his impending death with professions of love of his bravery, strength, shrewdness, kindness, and sexual prowess.

In spite of its primacy to the series, the basis of the romantic connection between Barrett and Quinn is not really explained. But the basis of other relationships is explained through intimate conversation. All of the romantic relationships in Banished are developed and fostered through conversation, often in bed and after dark. This is particularly true of the relationships between Major Ross, Corporal MacDonald (Ryan Corr), and the convict Katherine McVitie (Joanna Vanderham). Their love triangle is melodramatic historical romance at its swashbuckling finest. McVitie is assigned to MacDonald in the colony’s initial sexual barter. As Ross discovers, however, McVitie and MacDonald conspired to ensure they were together. Ross uses this information to force MacDonald to “share” McVitie with him. McVitie insists they have no option but to abide by Ross’ request, and she comforts MacDonald by insisting that Ross will “not have my mind, nor my heart”. But when Ross offers McVitie conversation and companionship rather than sex – “fully dressed” – only MacDonald can see the danger: “I would sooner you fuck him than talk to him”, he says. All the intimate “fully dressed” talking leads inevitably back to sex, and McVitie leaves MacDonald for Ross.

The importance of intimate conversation to romantic relationships is similarly emphasised in The Secret River. Will and Sal talk everything through, and again this often takes place in bed at the end of the day. Many of their conversations are disagreements: over returning home, or moving to the Hawkesbury, or their business plans, or, much later, Sal’s unwillingness to remain at Thornhill’s Point as the conflict with the Dharug heightens. After Smasher Sullivan’s violence towards the local peoples becomes clear to them, they even discuss the prospect of Will’s involvement in actions against them: “Promise me Will you won’t never do anything like that”, she says. Will breaks this promise, and his part in the massacre is one of the few things they don’t discuss openly: Will denies his involvement, though it’s clear Sal doesn’t believe him.

The difficulties of that conversation is one of several ways The Secret River makes clear that Will’s participation in violence against Indigenous peoples is not by choice. The miniseries explains Will’s involvement in terms of the Dharug people’s disruptive behaviour, which slowly fuels his anger. Even so, Will acts only after the spearing death of the disturbed and bereaved Saggity (Samuel Johnson). He questions the ringleader Smasher Sullivan’s plans for a surprise attack. And he is a deeply reluctant participant, hanging back from the violence. For the most part Will is more observer than perpetrator, shooting only when prompted or threatened. Back at Thornhill’s Point he is deeply traumatised as he washes blood from his shirt, seen only by Dickie. He presses a bloodied finger to his lips and implores his son to keep the difficult secret. Will is the violent white settler as we would perhaps like to imagine him in 2015 Australia: reluctant, ashamed, damaged, and with a deep if hidden sense of the implications of his actions.

Although the violence is directed elsewhere, a similar move is at play in Banished: the participation of settlers in violence is the result of a lack of alternatives. There are several examples of this through out the series, from governor to convict, but the most dramatic can be seen in Freeman’s hanging of Barrett, his closest friend and ally. Free man is manipulated by Phillip into becoming the colony’s hangman: he can either be hanged for the murder of Marston, or he can hang the next convict to transgress. “What would you do to live”, Phillip asks Freeman as he is on the scaffold, noose around his neck, last rights in the background. “Would you be our hangman?” Freeman agrees through stereotypically gritted teeth. When it becomes clear that the first to be hanged will be Barrett, he contemplates hanging himself instead, standing once again on the scaffold with the noose around his neck and his hand on the trapdoor lever. But he cannot do it; as he explains to Barrett, “I loved you Tommy, but I loved life more”. Like Thornhill, his part in this violence is under duress. Freeman is another violent white (convict) settler as we might like to see him in 2015: remorseful, saddened, and determined to make amends. Both Banished and The Secret River continue a long-standing trend of narrating the white settler as victim.25

Of course, the circumstances of settler violence in Banished and The Secret River are very different, and I don’t want to simply conflate them. But the lack of alternatives afforded to settlers enacting violence unfolds in similar ways. In both productions foundational violence is not really the fault of the individual, but is driven by forces beyond his control – the profound unfairness of British society at the turn of the nineteenth century, for example, or the depravities of the penal system. Although the structural causes of violence are important, in this case they are a deeply unsatisfying explanation because they allow the violent protagonists of The Secret River and Banished a free pass. This might be a very familiar dramatisation of Australia’s colonisation, but it is not a particularly productive one.

It is difficult for us to really know what convict settlers in colonial New South Wales considered to be the central drama of the creation of the colony. Although Banished and The Secret River offer contrasting interpretations – in one it is the conflict between convicts and colonial authorities, in the other it is the conflict between settlers and Indigenous peoples – the way they do so is surprisingly similar, as this chapter has mapped out. In the long run it’s likely that The Secret River will outshine Banished. This is not necessarily because it is more ‘accurate’, but rather because it speaks more directly to the historical concerns of contemporary Australia, engaging with a past that has been the subject of considerable public debate for more than two decades. If that is indeed the case, I can only hope that the self-congratulatory impulse that seems to surround all the incarnations of The Secret River doesn’t distract from the need for careful and considered analysis of the strategies and politics of this text.


1For an overview see Michelle Arrow, ‘Broadcasting the Past: Australian Television Histories’, History Australia Vol. 8, No. 1, 2011, pp.223–46.

2Kate Grenville, The Secret River, Text, Melbourne, 2005.

3Kate Grenville, The Lieutenant, Text, Melbourne, 2008; Kate Grenville, Sarah Thornhill, Text, Melbourne, 2011; Andrew Bovell, The Secret River, by Kate Grenville: An Adaptation for the Stage, Currency Press, Sydney, 2013. There has been significant and varied interest in Grenville’s Secret River from both historians and literary studies scholars. For discussions of this interest see Martin Staniforth, ‘Depicting the Colonial Home: Representations of the Domestic in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Vol. 13, No. 2, 2013, p.1; and Robert Clarke and Marguerite Nolan, ‘Book Clubs and Reconciliation: A Pilot Study on Book Clubs Reading the “Fictions of Reconciliation”’, Australian Humanities Review 56, 2014, pp.122–23.

4John Plunkett, ‘Banished Leads BBC2 to Ratings Victory with More Than 3m Viewers’, The Guardian, 6 March 2015, accessed 2 November 2015,

5‘The Official Line on Banished’, BBC One Points of View, accessed 2 November 2015,

6On the Revival see Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London, 1996.

7For a discussion of television and the nation see Jerome de Groot, Remaking History: The Past in Contemporary Historical Fictions, Routledge, London, 2016, p.49.

8“sumptuous”: Fiona Purdon, ‘River of Dreams’, The Courier-Mail, 13 June 2015, p.23; “accurate”: attributed to Aunty Edna Watson by Lauren Tesolin, ‘Unsettling Truth of Our Grim Past’, Penrith Press, 3 July 2015, p.12; “nuanced”: Andrew Fenton, ‘Race Against Time’, Sunday Herald Sun, 14 June 2015, p.1; “remarkable”: Michael Cathcart speaking on Books and Arts, Radio National, 19 June 2015, accessed 3 November 2015,; “courageous”: Paul Daley, ‘The Secret River Review: Have We Really Moved On?’, The Guardian, 15 June 2015, accessed 2 November 2015,; “uncomfortable”: Graeme Blundell, ‘Fish Out of Water’, The Australian, 13 June 2015, p.23.

9Blundell, ‘Fish Out of Water’.

10Daley, ‘The Secret River Review’.

11Scott Rankin speaking on Books and Arts.

12Michael Bodey, ‘ABC Miniseries Delivers Best Sunday Audience for Year’, The Australian, 15 June 2015, accessed 2 November 2015,

13“grubby little drama”: ‘What to Watch’, The Daily Telegraph, 28 February 2015, p.48; “more thickly than the tv crew’s sun cream”: Ceri Radford, ‘This Penal Colony Drama Was Grim and Heavy-Handed’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 March 2015, p.32.

14Sam Wollaston, ‘Banished Review: 18th Century Australia or I’m a Convict Get Me Out of Here?’, The Guardian, 6 March 2015, p.29.

15Ruth Ritchie, ‘Of Frauds and Floggings’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 July 2015, p.38.

16Jimmy McGovern, ‘BBC’s Banished: How I Tried and Failed to get Indigenous Characters on TV’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 2015, accessed 3 November 2015,

17Troy Bramston, ‘BBC’s Historical Whitewash Banishes Those Who Were Here Way Before Phillip’, The Australian, 20 June 2015, p.3.

18Bramston, ‘BBC’s Historical Whitewash’; Daley, ‘Banished Review’.

19Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787–1868, Collins Harvill, London, 1987; Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police, Penguin, Melbourne, 1975.

20See for example Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact, Text, Melbourne, 2003; Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2009.

21Julian Rhind-Tutt, cited in Graeme Blundell, ‘Foundation of Fear’, 20 June 2015, p.23.

22For discussions of the representation of Indigeneity on Australian television see: Marcia Langton, ‘Well, I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television’: An Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the Politics and Aesthetics of Filmmaking by and about Aboriginal People and Things, Australian Film Commission, Sydney, 1993; Frances Peters-Little, “‘Nobles and Savages” on Television’, Aboriginal History 27, 2003, pp.16–38; Michelle Arrow, “‘History Should Not Have Ever Been How it Was”: The Colony, Outback House, and Australian History’, Film and History Vol. 37, No. 1, 2007, pp.54–66.

23For a consideration of contemporary romantic love see for example William Jankowiak and Thomas Palladino, eds, Intimacies: Love and Sex Across Cultures, Columbia University Press, New York, 2008; and Mary Evans, Love: An Unromantic Discussion, Polity, Cambridge, 2003.

24See William Reddy, The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan, 900–1200 CE, The University of Chicago Press, 2012, 382–83.

25See Ann Curthoys, ‘Expulsion, Exodus and Exile in White Australian Historical Mythology’, Journal of Australian Studies No. 61, 1999, pp.1–18.

Small Screens

   by Michelle Arrow, Jeannine Baker and Clare Monagle