By James Manning
One of the several interviews Mediaweek conducted at BBC Showcase in Liverpool earlier this year was with screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. As we were in his hometown, we got McGovern to talk a little about the city as we sat in the conference centre on the banks of the river Mersey. He spoke about the former working dockyards where the Titanic set sail from and the gentrification of the docklands. (Listen to the podcast for the unedited history lesson!)
McGovern is the writer and creator of the seven-part series which was commissioned by BBC First and screens in Australia later this month beginning June 25.
Early Australian ties
I was first asked over there by a wonderful Australian writer Mac Gudgeon [The Secret River]. That was my first contact apart from the fact I had cousins in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. We did a writers workshop with Aboriginal people which my first contact with Aborigines. A few more years passed and Sally Riley from the ABC’s Indigenous Unit asked me back again for Redfern Now. I have been quite a few times now and spent a lot of time there.
Where is home these days?
I am in a place called Calderstones about 10 minutes from here which has a beautiful park.
How did Banished come about?
I can trace it back to working with Mac Gudgeon. We tried to do a story based around Bennelong, the Aborigine, and the first hangman. We did that for the BBC but it never got made. The head of BBC drama at the time was Jane Tranter who said to me, “If you don’t get this made as a movie in 18 months’ time we will do it on the BBC.” A few weeks later Jane left for the USA. [Laughs] That was the end of that.
I always had that story about the hangman. I later decided to look for other stories from the period and use that hangman story too. It is a great story and why it has never been told by Australians I do not know.
Back then Mac had a 90-minute script told from the Aboriginal perspective and I did one from the white person’s perspective. It was all about the hangman, Bennelong, and people like that.
That was about 80 pages of script. I now have over 400 pages.
Did you have any involvement after the script?
As far as I am concerned I do the script. It only becomes a TV program after the final scene has been shot. They were shooting exteriors in Australia and I am getting phone calls saying that the scripts are running short! I was constantly rewriting, but as it turned out the scripts ended up being over.
Is it common to have to write more dialogue?
It has happened to me once or twice before. It was a clash between our style of filmmaking and Australian style. Australian TV seems to be a lot more talkative and fast paced. In England it is totally different. I was therefore arguing, “They are not short. But you have to be on the safe side and provide more. But in the end we had to cut things.”
How do you react when you finish a script?
I absolutely hate it. I don’t like coming to the end of a project. I don’t like the final episode going out because it is all over – apart for the critics who come in and maul you. The main thing I don’t like is that it is time to start again. Then you have to write page one on another project which is an absolute killer. I have been ill in the past contemplating page one. And it gets harder as you get older. When I was young and idiotic I thought nothing of it, but now I know how hard it is going to be.
Tell us about your writing process
It’s a long arduous process. When I was younger I had a critical devil on one shoulder and a creative angel on the other. When you are young the creative angel is muscly and big and strong and the devil is weak. As you age, and get better, the critical devil becomes equal and then soon starts to overpower the creative angel. The older you get the more aware you are of just how good or bad your writing is and the harder it becomes.
Did you enjoy working on Banished?
Something happened on this, something clicked, and it’s very very good. I have been very lucky on this. I worked enormously hard, we all have, and it has turned out well.
Did you have to research the period?
The Aussies are going to pick holes in this right, left and centre. I did a fair amount of research over the years working with Mac. But when I knew enough I became creative. There are things happening in Banished that would never have happened. But the people are real. Governor Philip and Major Ross are both in it and the broad brush strokes are historically accurate but the detail is all fictional.
Have critics generally been good to you?
Yes and no. I know the ones that will have a go and I tend not to read them. It’s just that I don’t like to get hurt. There were also some who were very good to me and even championed me. There is room for better writing on TV and also room for better criticism of it as well.
[ot-video type=”youtube” url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11uvFBZARQ4″]
[blockquote style=”3″]Jimmy McGovern Podcast
Listen to the complete unedited interview with Jimmy McGovern where he gives some detail on his next project for the BBC. He talks about how he got into writing: “I started in the theatre and I couldn’t write theatre to save my life.” It was a soap opera that then saved him and moved him into television. He also explains why he prefers TV over movies and the chances of working in Australia again. “The flight is a killer!” He also has some fascinating comments about being a white working class man and the opportunity to work with indigenous Australians. You might also enjoy the question that prompted him to answer, “I’m too old to throw tantrums now.” He also talks about the BBC and snobs!
Listen to the podcast here or download on iTunes[/blockquote]