There are few writers out there whose name is as synonymous with quality television as Jimmy McGovern. Cracker might remain his crowning achievement, but even his smaller-scale projects, (like Accused or The Street) are compelling and often incredibly moving. Time is his latest creation, a stark, brutal prison drama more than a little reminiscent of David McKenzie’s brilliant and underseen Starred Up. Like McGovern’s best work, Time combines deeply gripping drama with some vivid characterisation.
Time is an incredibly visceral, raw look at life in prison told from the point of view of a first-time prisoner, Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) as he adjusts to life inside after a fatal traffic accident. Meanwhile respected, honest prison guard Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) has to juggle his responsibilities with the compromising position he’s put in when it becomes known to one inmate that his own son is in a nearby prison.
This is Sean Bean’s third collaboration with McGovern (He previously appeared in both Broken and Accused – again with Stephen Graham) and as with his previous appearances, he gives a performance very unlike what you would expect. There’s none of the self-assuredness or bravado you associate with the man who played Sharpe and Ned Stark. He’s a meek, softly spoken man who owns what he did but is still haunted by his crime, and finds himself out of his depth in prison, where he’s quickly identified as an easy target.
Meanwhile, Stephen Graham gives exactly the kind of turn we’ve come to expect from him, and that’s no bad thing. Even when playing someone decent, or at least well-meaning, he still feels like a coiled spring ready to lash out. Of the two his is the more impressive performance, but that might be due to the fact that there is a lot more momentum to his storyline, at least for the time being. Bean’s story is more static, and there’s only so many times you can watch someone get beaten down before the story grinds to a halt.
I get the distinct impression that this is intentional though and that the drama will be taken up a notch in the upcoming episodes. There has to be some significance to the casting of Brian McArdie as an inmate who keeps throwing furtive glances at Bean getting treated badly. Something’s going to give and I can’t wait to see it.
The rest of the cast are all brilliant as to be expected – David Calder and Sue Johnston are both great as Mark’s parents, with Johnston’s words about the nature of punishment sparking an internal discussion on what exactly prison is for. Graham is also joined by real-life wife Hannah Walters as his onscreen wife, and the two have an undeniable natural chemistry. He’s refreshingly candid with her about the blackmail attempt, and while most dramas might try and wring as much tension out of this as possible, it’s nice to see a couple in a drama who don’t have any contrived conflict between them. (as of yet!)
Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk and David Copperfield) is a stand out as Bernard, Mark’s unpredictable cellmate. Initially, it seems like he’s going to be the villain, but is quickly shown to be incredibly vulnerable, and just as much a victim of the system as Mark. The moment where we see his scars is a genuinely shocking moment, and really difficult to watch. The actual antagonist as played by James-Nelson Joyce is terrifyingly believable, picking on Mark for a perceived slight, and systematically taking away any remaining shred of dignity he has left.
Like most of McGovern’s work, the drama is often overwhelmingly bleak, but he manages to find the humanity in his characters. The loudmouth inmate in the opening scenes is shown to be contrite and good-natured after surviving a horrific assault – explaining what happened in grisly detail to a group of visiting young offenders to deter them from a life of crime. McGovern manages to convey the mundanity of the everyday routine in prison brilliantly, which makes the suddenness of the violence all the more shocking.
The direction from Lewis Arnold is nicely judged throughout, both unobtrusive and assured, with some dynamic moments that really help build the momentum of the drama, especially towards the end where the tension is almost unbearable. Making the programme under COVID restrictions must have presented some unique challenges, but there is no indication of this in this series, which is an achievement in and of itself – the staging and performances are incredibly natural and engaging, with a genuine feeling of claustrophobia that pervades through the whole episode.
Time feels like another classic drama from McGovern, and this first episode does a perfect job of establishing the characters and setting up the stakes for the rest of the series. Mark is close to breaking point, while Graham’s dilemma is plain from the episode’s closing moments – somebody is playing him, and from that final cathartic release of anger he unleashes on the inmate, it’s clear that when he finds out who, it will not be a pretty sight.
Contributed by Nick Bartlett
Time Continues Sunday at 9.00pm on BBC One. All episodes are now streaming on BBC iPlayer.