Banished is a new seven part series by writer Jimmy McGovern, creator of The Street and Cracker. Known for tackling social issues and injustices in his work, McGovern applies these themes to the inhabitants of the first penal colony in eighteenth century New South Wales. Convicts and soldiers alike deal with moral dilemmas and matters of the heart against a backdrop of what would be paradise if not for the brutality, exploitation and dwindling food rations.

Banished’s extraordinary setting becomes apparent within the show’s opening moments as a woman wakes from a nightmare in a dormitory that looks like the dank belly of a slave ship and emerges into the colour saturated exterior of an idyllic Australian beach. The scenery darts between the grim and the beautiful; squalid living quarters and ramshackle tents, sunsets and silhouettes and light streaming through tree canopies. The storyline mirrors this duality as it skirts the line between harrowing and sentimental occasionally becoming excessive on both parts.

The narrative plays out like a sort of Upstairs Downstairs in exile as we delve into the lives of both the prisoners and the soldiers of the Royal Navy. By day the men labour on little food and by night the women struggle to maintain their dignity as a result of the policy that bans convict men and women associating together and states convict women are fair game to the soldiers. If the convicts were not already murderers or whores before exile, they soon may be if they mean to survive. Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring), passionate tart with a heart, suffers what feels like a rape-a-minute existence in the first episode: a life so grim that the surprising decision to suddenly allow her to marry her convict lover Tommy (Julian Rhind-Tutt) feels jarring and near saccharine.

Worth watching are the interactions between the beautiful convict Catherine (Joanna Vanderham) and the hard-hearted Major Ross (Joseph Millson) in the second episode. Particularly compelling is Catherine’s touching tale of how she came to be exiled and her bitter summary of the injustice she continues to endure; ‘you treat me like muck because I have traded my body …but it was you who asked to trade in the first place’. The varied female characters are perhaps the strength of the programme. The exploitation they endure is upsetting almost to the point of vulgarity though, of course, it was reality for many women at the time. When those in charge convince themselves that the convicts do not think or feel (a mindset that is even more disturbing considering that we know, from history, people were exiled for crimes as insignificant as stealing food or clothes) abuse is inevitable. However distressing, these shameful acts of the past should be confronted. Another highlight of the show is the character of James Freeman (played by the intensely likable Russell Tovey) who finds himself outcast by the outcasts when forced to ‘grass’ on a fellow convict in order to prevent starving to death. A storyline that, admittedly, loses some of its urgency considering Tovey’s unchanged physique. It must be also said that the impact of Freeman’s teary protest to the Governor was lessened when he admitted his rival’s campaign against him had only began that morning.

Currently the convicts hold the larger portion of screen time though hopefully this is something that will balance out as the series unfolds. For example, some of the soldiers seem unreasonably unpleasant and context as to why they think and act the way they do would provide a motive beyond cruelty being good for melodrama. They and the introspective Governor (David Wenham) both deserve to be expanded upon in future episodes. The plot and characterisation are, so far, surprisingly simplistic considering McGovern’s previous work though his themes of injustice are still prevalent. Hopefully the series will go on to examine deeper into the characters and what brought them to New South Wales. In a world where everyone is wholly defined by their past crimes it would be of interest to know more about what those crimes were.

At points I found myself recalling glimpses of 2005’s The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant a TV film also based on mistreatment of convicts exiled to Australia. So far, the characters and the story seem familiar but the concept is enough to keep me interested for a few more episodes at least. One notable event in episode two seems likely to provide thrilling consequences. For me, the defining image of the show is of the convict couple having a gunshot wedding upon a gallows scaffold: glimmers of love and hope struggling to endure on a foundation of injustice and cruelty.

Banished will be broadcast on BBC One on 12 March at 9pm