Time is a series that it’s creator, Jimmy McGovern, has been mulling over since the ‘80s. What happens in prison once the criminals are locked away? What led them to make the decisions they did? And how does the system warp people once they’re institutionalised?
Like the 50-year war on drugs, Time makes the case that the British penal system is also failing, and the prison drama uses two of the UK’s best actors - Stephen Graham and Sean Bean - to tell two emotive sides of the story.
We start off being dropped into a very specific type of hell: in a prison van about to deliver some incredibly violent prisoners to jail. There’s the unshaven, grey face and the white knuckles of a man who’s clearly out of his depth here. The man is Mark Cobden (Bean) - teacher, and as we soon find out, a convicted drunk driver who is haunted by the man he accidentally killed.
Mark soon comes face to face with prison warden Eric McNally, played by Graham.
Eric seems to be a stoic sort of a guy, the man in charge of the men’s wellbeing, a “firm but fair” guard. However, his home life is tainted by the fact he’s lost his son, David. Not because he has died, as initially suggested, but because he’s also in prison, although not exactly following in his dad’s career path. This is a fact that Eric, understandably, is keen to cover up.
The bewildered-looking Mark is given a two minute phone call, but he can’t remember his parents’ number, so calls his wife, who is far from thrilled to hear from him. We learn a little bit more about him and his crime: he’s been sentenced to four years, he’s in Craigmore prison, and there’s absolutely no way he’s allowed to speak to his son, Tom.
He first speaks out about his crime when he’s asked if he’s “a nonce” by another one of the prisoners, and he says: “I killed a man”. We’re not sure if he’s lying at first, after all, it’s a pretty good ruse to keep other prisoners off your back. However, they ridicule him - “haha, you expect us to believe that?” - fair enough really, when he looks more like a man who’s been caught out for a Ponzi scheme that’s cleared out his friends and neighbours’ pensions.
Mark is introduced to his cellmate, Bernard (Aneurin Barnard), who clearly has issues. 10 years for manslaughter for killing his father, the circumstances of which are never fully explained, but unholy levels of darkness are hinted at. He’s paranoid, and has a panic attack, then starts slashing at his wrists with a blade. It’s clear he’s been self harming for quite some time and, bleeding profusely and screaming from his cell out to the guard Eric, he claims he has AIDS. The full riot police come in, tackle him and a shell-shocked Mark contemplates four more years in this hellhole.
Eric might have control over his men, but then one of them throws a grenade into his life - he knows his son is in prison. Despite denying it at first, the inmate knows exactly what prison he’s in and that Eric is down to visit him tomorrow. Shit. “You want him to be comfy don’t you? We know loads of lads down there,” says the prisoner. Double shit. He’s now being blackmailed into bringing contraband items into prison, or it’s his son’s life at risk. And so the moral dilemma begins.
It’s a sleepless night for both Eric and Mark. While Eric and his wife Sonia (Hannah Walters) weigh up what to do, Mark’s tormented by visions of the cyclist he’s killed, with his widow yelling at him: “May you rot in prison and burn in hell, you drunken bastard”. We often ask the guilty ‘how can you sleep at night?’ - this shows that those who have any empathy or regret clearly can’t.
We get the first glimpses of how evil fellow con Johnno (James Nelson-Joyce) is as he boils up a kettle, adding a bag of sugar to it. He’s clearly not making sugar syrup for a round of cocktails, is he? He throws it in the face of another screaming prisoner and Mark looks like he’s about to pass out. These tortures meted out among inmates serve as a warning to others, where even a wrong look at someone could end up with you being permanently disfigured. The oppressive walls close in yet again around Mark.
Eric visits David and tells him that his fellow inmates are on to him. There’s two choices: he’s moved to the VP wing (where the chances of him being sexually assaulted rise) or ghosted: moved prisons in the dead of night, again making him a target. Ghosted it is, then.
Christ, we’re only on day four of Mark’s sentence, the credits on the screen tell us, and he gets a visit from his parents. He brushes off the horrors of the last 96 hours (“It’s noisy, it’s boring, the food’s a bit rubbish. Apart from that it’s alright - I wish I had more to complain about, I really do!” he lies through his teeth) to save their distress. His mum, played by Sue Johnston, says: “You’re in here as punishment, son, not for it”, which seems a weird semiotic twist and of little comfort to Mark.
Elsewhere for the other prisoners’ visits, there’s a sense of foreboding. One man’s wife tells him, while he’s clutching his little girl: “This place is rock bottom, somewhere to start again, a clean slate”. It’s a rather rose-tinted view of the situation - things clearly aren’t going to work out well for this character.
Back on the wing, conflicts are escalating between Johnno and Mark, when Johnno rips the phone out of Mark’s hand, then threatens to snap his jaw off if he retaliates. Mark slinks back into his sallow skin, mumbling how sorry he is. But there’s more to worry about when he’s back in his cell - Bernard is back, and has a fit. Mark cries out for help again, but the guard can’t come in without support, leaving just vital seconds for Bernard’s life to be saved. It can’t.
There’s a slight reprieve which comes in the form of Marie-Louise (Siobhan Finneran), a kindly nun, who’s reaching out to Mike after Bernard’s suicide - he saved up all his meds and overdosed on them, she informs him. He’s invited to join a group of wayward students who are brought into the prison to meet the inmates, with the hope of dissuading them against a life of crime. It’s powerful persuasion, especially when we see Baz, the victim of Johnno’s boiling sugar attack.
There’s more foreboding when Eric receives a call from his son, who has been transferred safely. “It’s all looking good!” he says. Oh, David, lad. Thinking that Eric’s managed to come out on top, the next morning, he brings in the riot guards to pull the prisoner who first threatened his son out of his cell. A battering begins, he’s thrown into segregation and Eric taunts him: “Hurt my son, and you pay for it”. Sorry, but this feels like the beginning rather than the end of an escalating situation - especially when the prisoner reveals they know David’s new transfer prison.
Also an escalating situation is Johnno, who pulls the phone out of Mark’s hand - again, rude! - when he’s speaking to his son. Johnno bops him in the face, and tells him to hit him back. Go on Mark, hit him back! He doesn’t, leading a shady older character to sidle up to him and tell him: “You should have hit him back. Your life won’t be worth living now.”. We’re still only on week one. Oh god.
Prison diary notes:
A couple of bits of prison lingo to translate: VPU is the vulnerable person’s unit, also known as the “numbers” or “beast wing” and it’s where paedophile or sex abuser prisoners are kept, who in prison hierarchy for crimes, are seen as most vulnerable to attack from other inmates. Ghosting, which Eric’s son is put up for, is when prisoners are moved quickly or surreptitiously from one prison to another if they’re at threat.
Eric’s wife is played by Stephen’s real life wife, Hannah Walters - the couple met when they were studying at Rose Bruford College, and they’ve been together 28 years. Given that Graham is dyslexic, she says she reads all his scripts before him, and pointed out, correctly, that this one was brilliant.
If everyone in prison looks like they’ve been grey-scaled, it’s because the set designer created a specific colour to paint the disused Shrewsbury prison to look miserable and oppressive. It’s really done the job.
Time continues on Sunday nights on BBC One at 9pm, or you can catch up on iPlayer.
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