mon 20/05/2024

Time, BBC One review - grim and gritty study of life behind bars by Jimmy McGovern | reviews, news & interviews

Time, BBC One review - grim and gritty study of life behind bars by Jimmy McGovern

Time, BBC One review - grim and gritty study of life behind bars by Jimmy McGovern

Sean Bean and Stephen Graham find themselves in different kinds of prison

Inside men: Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) and Eric McNally (Stephen Graham)

Jimmy McGovern’s new three-part drama about prison life is about as far as you could travel from Ronnie Barker’s Seventies sitcom Porridge, even if they are both on the same TV channel.

Having said that, McGovern’s fictional HM Prison Craigmore doesn’t look as if it’s had a facelift in 50 years, and its cramped cells and brutishly ugly corridors are enough to trigger panic attacks in the hardiest viewer. And that’s before you’ve met the inmates.

Into this living nightmare comes Mark Cobden (Sean Bean), a teacher from a comprehensive school who’s been handed a four-year sentence after killing a man in a drunk-driving accident. Cobden is already stricken with guilt over the accident, and Bean acutely conveys his bewilderment and shock at what’s become of him, descending into his new environment of prison vans and warders, angrily bellowing fellow-prisoners and humiliating body-searches like a lost soul being lowered into Hell. It’s as if he isn’t just being incarcerated for his crime, he’s been transported to a dimension he didn’t previously know existed.

The drama is suffocatingly intense, and while as usual McGovern has polemical points to hammer home, they're more organically integrated than is often the case. Here, his expertise at knitting together character and action so that each is constantly driving the other forward is an object lesson that many a TV writer would do well to study. He created the piece with his lead actors in mind, and playing opposite Bean in a prison officer’s uniform is Stephen Graham as Eric McNally. He is, he tells Cobden, his “personal officer” who’s responsible for safeguarding him, and Graham’s mix of warmth and pugnacity makes him the perfect man for the job. He seems tough but straightforward, capable of being sympathetic but unsentimental.

McGovern portrays the prison staff generally as ordinary people trying to do an impossible job as conscientiously as possible, but the crude one-size-fits-all nature of the prison system means that a lot of prisoners are going to be square (or for that matter triangular) pegs being forced into round holes. Cobden has been locked up because he made a disastrous error of judgment, but he’s chucked in a cell with Bernard (Aneurin Barnard), a severely disturbed young Welshman who killed his own father, and who cuts himself all over his body with razorblades and overdoses on pills.

The mild-mannered Cobden finds himself being victimised by the psychotic Johnno (James Nelson-Joyce, pictured above), who’ll casually steal his food and grab the communal telephone out of his hand when he’s making his precious phone call to his parents (played by David Calder and Sue Johnston). When Johnno punches Cobden and Cobden can’t bring himself to fight back, another inmate warns him that “your life won’t be worth living now.” Cobden has already watched in horror as Johnno punished a suspected snitch by pouring boiling water over him. Will the demoralised schoolteacher be able to dig deep enough to find the resources he needs to survive?

The chain reaction of damage reaches outside Craigmore and into McNally’s life too. He’s horrified when one of the inmates, Pete (Kadiff Kirwan), lets him know that he and his criminal pals have found out that McNally’s son David (Paddy Rowan) is in Lowood prison. The unsubtle message is that if McNally wants his son not to be the victim of some unpleasant accident, he’ll need to do Pete a favour, or no doubt more than one. McNally takes emergency measures to get his son moved, but somewhere in the system there’s a leaker revealing his every move.

There are many messages woven into the fabric of Time, and one of them would be that whatever kind of person you are when you go into prison, you'll be lucky if you're a better one by the time you get out. Unless McGovern’s Craigmore is just the solitary rotten apple in the barrel…

McGovern portrays the prison staff as ordinary people trying to do an impossible job


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters