You can tell within seconds of Time – Jimmy McGovern’s new three-parter – that the timid schoolteacher Mark (Sean Bean) doesn’t belong in prison.
When he rides in a prisoner transport vehicle (like a jail on wheels), the other convicts scream and shout. Mark stays silent and afraid. After taking residence in HMP Craigmore, he shrinks and flinches from violent bullies who steal his sandwiches and his phone calls. He has a near-pacifistic demeanour, which barely registers in this depressing, grey-and-white container. Its terrifying testosterone seeps through the bland walls and heavy doors.
But unlike Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, which Time rarely but inevitably imitates, Mark admits to his crime. He did it, that’s for sure, and he’s been sentenced to four years. And yet, despite the punishment suiting the offence, Mark still doesn’t belong there. It’s a riveting, upsetting paradox.
A concurrently armoured and fragile Stephen Graham (The Virtues, The Irishman) also stars, playing the lead police officer Eric. The series follows both him and Mark in parallel, crossing only occasionally.
Eric is caught in an impossible situation. A few inmates in his charge, through a corruptive set of circumstances, find out his son is locked up in another prison. That hold on Eric – organised by the shady, croaky and frightening prisoner Jackson (Brian McCardie, who played Tommy Hunter in Line of Duty) – is a bit elaborate, but provides a gruelling insight into the politics of prison life.
Stephen Graham stars as officer Eric McNally. Photo: BBC/Matt Squire
McGovern provides no easy answers to the dense, ethical questions he brings up. For a time, the series shows that prison shapes these criminals into worse people. The stories of Mark’s cell-mates confirm this. It is telling when, in one scene, Eric describes that half his prisoners deserve to be in mental institutions but ‘there’s no room for ’em’.
On the other side, Mark has a desperate need to atone without the chance of forgiveness. He is being punished, after all, and his guilt is excruciating. Bean's hard and weathered performance is a genuine marvel, and you immediately forget his credits in Hollywood.
McGovern’s point, it seems, is that these arguments aren’t clear cut; they’re horrendously messy and often chaotic. Mark is constantly at risk of betraying his morality to survive and Eric, a caring and considerate officer, is threatened into forsaking his own principles to protect his son.
Sean Bean as convicted schoolteacher Mark Cobden. Photo: BBC/James Stack
The series also drifts into the personal stories of the other prisoners, the reasons for being there ranging from gambling issues to simply 'saving face'. They reveal these motivations either to families of the victims or to schoolchildren, the latter encounters set up by the ineffably nice prison chaplain Marie-Louise (Siobhan Finneran).
Although these intense examinations avoid the more antagonistic convicts, they’re extremely sympathetic vignettes of men who went the wrong way. You feel for every one of them, despite the sometimes horrific reasons for their imprisonment.
These quandaries exist in a place so oppressive and brutal and restricted that you feel the hurt of time lost. Similar to Shawshank, that sense of time starts as a slow hurdle before hundreds of days pile on top of each other. Time is certainly bleak, but doesn’t linger too long in the trauma of it all. The series is even morbidly addictive in its deep questions and detailed character work. McGovern has made another winner.
Time airs on Sunday 6 June at 9pm on BBC One
|What||Time, BBC One review|
06 Jun 21 – 06 Jun 22, ON BBC ONE
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