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Time, series 2 review: a wrenching, violent story of motherhood behind bars

Bella Ramsey, Tamara Lawrance and Jodie Whittaker
Bella Ramsey, Tamara Lawrance and Jodie Whittaker - Sally Mais/BBC

Fate has the velocity of a guillotine in the dramas of Jimmy McGovern, who is back inside with a second series of Time (BBC One). In the first scene a single mother hurries three children off to school. Next she’s in a prison van with a drug smuggler and a murderer. So that’s why she was smartly dressed: she was due in court. Her crime? “Fiddling the leccy.”

The blueprint for this three-part, boxsetted wringer is just like the last Time, when Sean Bean did a stretch for killing a man while drunk at the wheel: rage, shame, violence, horrendous tension and the high emotionalism that is a McGovern trademark.

The new theme is motherhood. Of the three women soon sharing a cell, Orla (Jodie Whittaker) is trying to stop her kids being taken into care, Kelsey (Bella Ramsey) is a scowling teenage druggie who discovers that she’s pregnant and Abi (Tamara Lawrance) is guilty, it’s soon revealed, of the ultimate crime.

Failed by their own mothers, they find another mother figure in the nick. Marie-Louise, a nun played with a sad saintly twinkle by Siobhan Finneran, was seen last series working in the men’s prison. “But nine of 10 men won’t talk,” she explains. “Nine out of 10 women won’t shut up so I thought I’d have a bit of that.”

Kelsey, high on crack, shuts up the least. Abi, deeply traumatised, has the opposite pathology. Orla’s maternal instincts make her desperate. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” she tells the others, “but I hope I never see you again. Either of yer.” It takes a while for that wish to come true.

It’s wonderfully cast. Ramsey (The Last of Us, Game of Thrones) and Whittaker (Doctor Who) relish shucking off the roles they are best known for. Lawrance, with the grimmest storyline, brings tinges of Greek tragedy. The men are well sketched but peripheral to the least male drama McGovern has ever written.

It’s also thrillingly paced. Perhaps too thrillingly. One of the wonders of the first series was Bean’s lonely stillness. Three leads means three narratives. They say prison is boring. Not when it kicks off like this.

“Do you like your job?” Kelsey’s boyfriend asks a kindly prison guard, who nods. “I’d sooner eat s--t!” Hold that image. One inmate, relentlessly punished by other women, finds herself doing just that. Prisoner: Cell Block H this is not. It’s Jimmy McGovern, which means lashings of Catholicism, a spot of leftie ranting and, praise be, a great gratifying dollop of redemption to finish.