Jimmy McGovern's new prison drama Time is full of captivating performances

Sean Bean and Stephen Graham are utterly sensational in portraying two men trapped inside. 

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I can’t say that I’ve ever been the number one fan of the screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. I loved Robbie Coltrane in Cracker, of course, and I liked The Lakes, starring John Simm as a badly behaved kitchen porter (or at any rate, I was completely startled by The Lakes, which seemed very naughty indeed to anyone who spent their childhood holidays by Ullswater, all those buttocks bobbing up and down in poor old Patterdale). But after that, the shows seemed to grow ever more sentimental and preachy. And there were so many of them! Somewhere along the way, the factories and the terraced houses, the Catholic priests and the shop stewards, all began to blur. In life, redemption is a magnificent thing. Forgiveness! I want a lot more of that. But on telly, an excess of it makes your teeth ache, as if you’ve been eating too many sweets.

Imagine my surprise, then, when just as the first episode of his new series, Time (6 June, 9pm), was about to end, I found ­myself wondering if I should watch the second before bed. Imagine, too, my further amazement as, that very same night, I immediately lined up the third (all three are on iPlayer). What was happening to me?

It wasn’t even as if I was enjoying myself. I cried through most of the last ­episode, quietly at first, and then uncontrollably (though not, I fear, cathartically). In this drama, McGovern labours a somewhat basic point, which is that prison mostly doesn’t work (or not in this country). But my God, the way he does it. Very little ­happens and yet, everything does, the worlds of its two ­principal characters turning and turning again, in ways that are unfathomable to both of them, even as they’ve only themselves to blame.

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Not that McGovern can take all the credit. I can’t think that Sean Bean and Stephen Graham have ever been better, each of them deploying only the tiniest muscles in their faces in the cause of stabbing the audience in the heart. Bean is Mark, a former school teacher, who is beginning a sentence for manslaughter, having killed a man while drunk behind the wheel. Graham is Eric, a prison officer of 30 years’ standing who works on Mark’s wing.

Picture a set of scales (I’m quite sure McGovern did, as he wrote). When the ­series starts, the two of them are ­unevenly balanced, one a criminal and the other squeaky clean. But things are about to change. While Mark is determined to atone for what he has done, Eric is about to dip his toe in the murk into which he has hitherto only peered from the sidelines. His son, it turns out, is serving a prison sentence ­elsewhere, word of which has got out among the lags. If he wants his boy to be safe, he’s going to have to start bringing in stuff (drugs, knives) for the men in his charge.

Time is wonderfully attentive to detail. It feels well-researched. Snooker balls inserted into a sock become a cosh. Sugar and boiling water is the punishment meted out to snitches. A man who cuts himself, or bangs his head against the wall until it cracks, is extracted from his cell by screws who use plastic riot shields to press him into a corner, like coffee in a cafetiere.

[See also: Keir Starmer played Piers Morgan at his own game and won]

So many petty rules and regulations, and yet, everywhere, such chaos. The noise – the absolute din – is constant and ­overwhelming. Allies are bought, not made. Enmities, on the other hand, are formed in a split second: a single glance can do it.

In the midst of all this, and the performances of so many good actors (Siobhan Finneran as a Catholic nun, Aneurin Barnard as Mark’s disturbed cell mate), Bean is utterly sensational: a still, trembling point who embodies not only fear, shame, utter bewilderment and (for a while) loss of self, but also stoicism, kindness and, yes, remorse.

Contrition is a hard thing to make felt, even in real life. That an actor can impress it on us, his sincerity almost warm to touch, seems to me to be a truly remarkable thing. I had not expected it of him, nor of this script, and now I am a penitent, too. I come, in my sackcloth and my ashes, to bear witness to a Sunday night miracle.

 Time  
BBC One

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 09 June 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?

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