A criminal’s lot living in a land down under

Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring), Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind Tutt) and James Freeman (Russell Tovey) in Banished

Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring), Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind Tutt) and James Freeman (Russell Tovey) in Banished

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Landing the lead in Jimmy McGovern’s new drama, charting the arrival of British convicts to Australia, hasn’t just been a history lesson for Russell Tovey as he tells Susan Griffin

Russell Tovey’s looking a little distracted, as his beloved pooch Rockie – a grey French Bulldog – snuffles around his feet, scouring for food on the Manchester set of new drama Banished.

The pair were forced to spend weeks apart when Tovey headed to Australia to film scenes for the period drama, which follows the 18th century British convicts who were shipped off to New South Wales to establish a penal colony.

“He’s got his dog passport and his jabs, but I’m so scared that, because of his ears and the plane pressure, he’d start freaking out,” admits the actor, who clearly adores his pet.

“We’re definitely a tag-team in the UK though. He’s my stand-in, because our hair and ears match up.”

By his own admission, Tovey, who came to prominence in The History Boys and Being Human, normally plays the “loveable idiot, but as I’m getting older and filling out and able to grow facial hair, things are changing”.

It’s why he decided to audition for the role of Major Ross when Banished, written by Jimmy McGovern, came up.

“He’s completely against type for me. Very cold, calculated, and my heart was set on it.” So he was devastated to be asked to play convict, James Freeman, instead. “I went, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to play him, he doesn’t have that much of a journey’, and they went, ‘Are you crazy? He’s the lead.” That grabbed his interest, he recalls, laughing.

“I just got fixated on Ross, so didn’t put myself in the frame for anyone else, and hadn’t read the scripts through James’ eyes.”

He describes his character as a “cheeky chappie, incredibly kind-hearted and sensitive. I have quite an expressive face, which lends itself to comedy, but with James, I wanted him to be strong and grounded and solid. He has humour but has had terrible stuff put on him that he has to deal with.”

In the drama, James is “a pickpocket who was caught in London, but instead of being hanged, which seems quite a strong sentence, he was given the option to come to Australia. He’s not an awful person but an opportunist”.

He forges a strong friendship with Tommy Barrett, played by Green Wing’s Julian Rhind-Tutt on the ship over, and then both fall for the same woman, Elizabeth Quinn, brought to life by Downton Abbey’s MyAnna Buring.

“Tommy gets in there first,” 33-year-old Tovey reveals, but the three of them manage to put these potentially conflicting feelings aside and become a strong team.

“The power of their love, and deep bonds of friendship, mean they all hang out together and look out for each other in this dangerous new environment.”

The task of bringing 18th century Australia to life fell to directors Daniel Percival and Jeffrey Walker, and their teams. All of the exteriors were shot on location at Manly Dam near Sydney, and then production moved to warehouses in Manchester to film the interiors.

“We were worried how seamless it was going to be, but it looks amazing,” says Essex-born Tovey.

“Plus, we had playback, so you could remind yourself of what sort of energy you went into a scene with. It wouldn’t have worked if we were running into a tent out in Australia, and then ambling into it back in Manchester.”

Much like the first fleet of settlers, the cast and crew found the bush location challenging.

“I had a real leech attached to me, I ate a Witchetty grub, and one of the crew got bitten by a mouse spider. My nature skills, particularly in relation to avoiding certain death, have improved a lot!”

Banished begins on BBC Two on Thursday, March 5