Some acts are harder to follow than others. Jimmy McGovern’s prison drama Time, in which Sean Bean turned in the best performance of his career, was an astonishing thing – moving, and powerfully true – and when I heard, two years on, that it was to have another outing, I was disappointed. I’ve never been one for encores. Don’t squeeze it like a rag! I thought. Let its redemptive coda be ever lovely in the memory.
Was I right to be anxious? Not really. I do think the first series might be the better of the two; it was character-led, and this guarded against worthiness, an ever-present danger when a writer tackles what are essentially political matters (an overcrowded, crumbling estate; demoralised, badly paid staff; the near abandonment of the notion of rehabilitation). The new series feels slightly overloaded, its characters created somewhat in the service of issues. But it is amazing nonetheless: an intimate horror show I could only watch from a strange angle, my body thrust forward and my head back, as if I was struggling in the face of a howling gale. The performances are breathtaking: fierce, and utterly plausible. Awards will be won.
This time, we’re in a women’s prison. It has an old-fashioned brick-built wing, to which prisoners are sent when they misbehave, but the majority are housed in a series of single-storey Nissen-style huts, three to a cell but with a shared kitchen and living room. Inside these huts, cell doors may be left open by those prisoners who are not in fear of being robbed or attacked. The atmosphere is, in other words, like a sixth-form common room gone terrifyingly wrong. And it’s into such enclosed madness – hormones, mental illness, smuggled blades – that McGovern’s pitiable trio are delivered: Orla (Jodie Whittaker), who’s in prison for the first time having fiddled her electricity; Kelsey (Bella Ramsey), a heroin addict (she has been inside before); and Abi (Tamara Lawrance), a lifer newly transferred from another prison.
My tears started up almost immediately, and continued like Storm Babet for much of the next two hours (I have one episode still to go, which I will watch when I’ve summoned the requisite courage). Orla didn’t expect to receive a prison sentence, and thanks to this, she’d told no one she was appearing in court. It was almost unbearable, the sight of her carrying her scant belongings in a plastic bag, her mind turning again and again to the whereabouts of the three children she dropped at school only that same morning; to the inevitable arrival of social services. Her bleached hair is terrible – it looks like a white loaf – but it also underlines her pride, her desperate dignity.
Anyone who wants to know why short prison sentences are an egregious idea – especially for crimes born of poverty – will find answers to their questions here. But I’m reluctant to give other details away. Suffice to say that Kelsey will soon make a life-changing discovery, that the nature of Abi’s crime will soon be revealed, and that every scene manacles you to it. The intimacy – that word again – is extreme. Here are female bodies, and you can almost smell them: sweat, blood, cheap shower gel.
At first, nothing seems to connect this series of Time with the last. But in fact, there is one thing: Marie Louise (Siobhan Finneran), the Catholic nun, who has switched chaplaincies (men don’t talk, she says; she fancied working with women, who sometimes can’t stop talking). I’m glad about this. McGovern is one of the few writers we have who still allows for faith – who understands it, and takes it seriously, refusing to belittle or deride it – and Finneran is wonderful in the role, the very way she walks suggestive of a wonky halo. And she’s a brilliant device, too, pushing the prisoners to open up, listening in to their frenzied, futile phone calls. Like the man who created her, she knows the power of words, the ownership that can accompany confession. I don’t believe I exaggerate when I say that together, McGovern and Finneran bring something close to numinous to this series. However hard it is to watch, you feel much better for it afterwards.
BBC One, 29 October, 9pm
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts