Russell Tovey: ‘A leech sucked my blood during filming for Banished!’

Russell Tovey experiences rough justice when he stars as James Freeman in Jimmy McGovern’s epic new seven-part drama series, Banished (BBC2, Thursday).

Set in the harsh world of 1788’s Australia, British convicts and soldiers negotiate the flimsy civilisation of a new penal colony, as they battle for survival against deadly predators, killer heat, lack of food and each other!

In a chat with What’s on TV Russell reveals the blood-sucking realities of working on this historical survival drama…

What do you think makes this chapter of history so suitable for a television drama?
“It’s a fascinating period. It was a gritty, rough and ready time and I think people will embrace that. It’s such a rich seam of untapped history I think it could continue beyond this series. These guys came to land that’s like Jurassic Park and worked relentlessly in incredible conditions. Food and sex become currency. Yet they knew, if they can survive disease and death for 10 years, maybe they could start anew from scratch. James and his friends focus on a dream life beyond their punishment.”

What can you tell us about your character convict James Freeman?
“Londoner James is a convict who’s been shipped over to Australia, after he was caught pick-pocketing. His banishment to an Australian penal colony meant he avoided being hung! What I love about Banished is it’s such a historical piece. James Freeman was a real man. I’ve learned a lot while working on this.”

Who are his friends in the New South Wales penal colony?
“On the journey over James became friends with Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind-Tutt). Their boat was moored for six months before they spent nine months at sea. He and Tommy became best friends and used to spy on the female ship while they were all docked in the Caribbean. This is when they both met and fell in love with Elizabeth Quinn, played by MyAnna Buring.”

Is there something of a love triangle between these three then?
“Tommy got in there first because he was a bit more vocal about his feelings. So essentially James is in love with his best mate’s girl!”

That must be tough!
“James is lonely, but he’s got his mates. And he’s a very good man. He’s also a cheeky chappy with a good sense of humour and loves flirting with the other ladies in the penal colony. But then – bang! – it’s all taken away from him, and he experiences heartbreak and pain. It’s lots of fun to play.”

How does James deal with blacksmith, Marston, (Rory McCann) when he starts stealing his meagre rations?
“He’s put in a lot of difficult positions. James has a hard decision to make which put him under humungous pressure. Will he sacrifice his life for the livelihood of everyone around him? It’s heavy stuff.”

Have you enjoyed being part of a Jimmy McGovern epic?
“I loved it. It’s proper drama! Everyone involved is phenomenal. Having Jimmy McGovern’s scripts in your hands is an awesome experience. Especially because, as James, there’s loads for me to do. So many dramatic arcs and lots of emotion. Though there was a scene where I had to have a leech attached to me. You’ll hear me wailed in a high pitched voice… because it started sucking my blood!”

You’re often seen with your dog, Rocky? Did you leave him at home when you filmed Banished in Australia?
“Yeah, he couldn’t go because he would have needed three months in quarantine. I’m hoping to take him to San Francesco where Looking is filmed, but I’m terrified about bringing him on the plane in case he freaks out from the pressure in his ears!”

Banished begins on BBC2, Thursday, March 5 at 9pm. The stellar cast also includes David Wenham, Ned Dennehy, Orla Brady, Genevieve O’Reilly and Ewen Bremner.

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