Now and again, a drama comes along that is both exquisitely written and beautifully performed and staged. These dramas are rare, and while TV is full of work that earns praise, its ability to create outstanding, unforgettable and powerful drama remains limited to a small number of outings each year. Time, the new BBC One drama from Jimmy McGovern, is one of these outstanding, intuitive and perfectly balanced TV dramas. Its story of imprisonment, human fragility and the choices we make in life compelling and richly diverse. Here, McGovern embeds the journey of two characters, one an officer and one a prisoner, into the reality of a penal system where power, place and morality sit on a fine line. The thin divide between imprisonment and freedom bound to the random choices we make as we walk through life.
McGovern understands that some of the decisions we make are made out of necessity, some out of ignorance and some out of uncontrolled anger, alienation or addiction. But, each of these choices acts as a wheel of fortune, leading us to new horizons and opportunities or a terrifying cul-de-sac. Our very lives held balanced on a set of scales that can tip in any direction in the space of just a few short moments—the result, a life-changing and unavoidable new path.
Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) sits quietly in a prison transport van, his mind a blur as he processes the devastating four-year prison sentence he has received. Mark is unusual among his fellow transportees; he is a teacher in his mid-50s, his life torn apart following the death of a cyclist while he was drunk at the wheel of his car. His fellow passengers’ arguments only heightening the alien world surrounding him as they shout and attribute blame between their compartments.
As Mark arrives at the prison, he is steered through the induction programme. His life suddenly no longer his own. Now every step, every conversation and every question finds scrutiny, assessment and judgement. His old life redundant as he tries to find a place, purpose and identity among the men surrounding him. Enter, Marks personal officer Eric McNally (Stephen Graham), a man with 22 years’ service in Her Majesty’s Prison Service. Eric is the epitome of professionalism, his sense of duty-bound in an ethos of firm but fair treatment. However, miles away, Eric’s son, David, also sits in prison, serving a short sentence. And it’s only a matter of time before Eric finds his sons name used as a tool of potential blackmail. The resulting journey one of one man’s attempt at rehabilitation and one man’s unstoppable fall from grace.
While McGovern’s screenplay is the star of the show, alongside Lewis Arnold’s richly atmospheric direction, Time would not be complete without the superb casting choices at its heart. Here, Sean Bean and Stephen Graham give us BAFTA worthy performances from the first scene to the last. And when these powerhouse performances combine with an outstanding supporting cast, Time becomes one of the finest dramas of 2021 so far. And without doubt, one of the best BBC dramas of the past 12 months.
McGovern, Arnold, Bean and Graham elevate Time above and beyond the simplistic prison narrative we often see. Here, there are no simple villains, no easy choices and no heroes who save the day. Instead, Time remains embedded in reality, reflecting that many of our prisons have become underfunded emergency mental health institutions in a society obsessed with notions of punishment rather than rehabilitation. Our government happy to lock people away with little thought or planning dedicated to their eventual release, creating a revolving door of no escape.
This does not mean Time condones the actions of its characters. Time acknowledges that offending is often wrapped in a range of social structures, from addiction to financial problems, community expectations or fear. The individual’s choices held hostage by the structures surrounding them; their ability to escape limited by a lack of support, guidance or help.
Equally, Time reflects upon the communities created in prison establishments and the inescapable need to find belonging and safety. Here, McGovern’s screenplay is at its most assured. The prison and its structures reflecting the continued need to find security. The prison a mix of personalities, offending behaviours and characters that act as an intensified microcosm of society. Within the prison walls, there are those whose life is now lost in a cycle of offending. Those who struggle to overcome the labels society has placed upon them. And those who accept their punishment and long for rehabilitation and rebirth. The staff equally reflect this, with some conditioned by the environment in which they work. Meanwhile, some strive to make a difference in the life of those in their care. While at the same time, some wear a mask of emotional detachment from the environment around them.
The result is a compelling, nuanced and striking drama. One that understands the wider issues surrounding a criminal justice system creaking under pressure. While at the same time reflecting on the people, emotions and rehabilitation of those in its care. It asks us all to reflect on what we want from justice, what we need our prisons to do, and the thin line that sits between freedom and imprisonment; the choices we make today, tomorrow or next year the dividing line between a life on the outside and a life on the inside.