BBC One's new jailhouse drama is surprisingly watchable. ‘Time’ had me itching in my seat. And not in a good way. As a former prison officer, I remember the ‘NATO standard’ woolly pulley worn by Stephen Graham’s character with no affection but at least his seems to fit, which is bad continuity. All chafing aside, Sunday’s opener was a harrowing masterpiece.
Having advised TV production companies on prison dramas in the past, I am used to producers saying, ‘Yes, we understand that’s not what happens in the real world, Ian, but we are trying to tell a story.’ It is a mark of the genius of director Jimmy McGovern that he’s created more authenticity about prison life in those first sixty visceral minutes than all the previous iterations of two-dimensional Porridge. Graham plays prison officer Eric McNally with absolute conviction if you’ll pardon the pun. It’s the first time in my memory we’ve seen a jailer as fully realised as their charges. Normally the knuckle dragging caricature proves too convenient to resist but this time we see a character with a complicated backstory that Graham inhabits with extraordinary poise.
On the other side of the bars to Graham we have perennially battered Sean Bean acting out of his skin as Mark Hobden, a teacher convicted of death by dangerous driving and sent down for the first time into a new reality that he’s profoundly unsuited to. His descent from an insulated middle-class existence into the feral local prison is a routine enough storyline but it is played to perfection by Bean - a broken man marooned in the sea of violence, loss and despair that is HMP Craigmore where the action takes place.
But our prisons, even the worst of them (and the bar is pretty low) are not merely places of dystopian tragedy. And this is where the first episode sings in a way few of its predecessors have managed. There are already blinks of the humanity and humour that we insiders know underpin and sustain these bleak institutions. While we see awful but necessary scenes of self-harm, brutality and victimisation, we also glimpse officer McNally’s brusque sincerity, the fledgling camaraderie of strangers in this strange land and the potential for hope when prisoner Bean is visited by a prison chaplain after seeing his pad mate take his own life. We also see the bitter-sweet importance of prison visits played out - a fact that won’t be lost on those inside prison who have been stripped of this essential contact for so long by Covid-19 restrictions.
A fully realised prison drama would be unwatchable because it would be impossible to fit the long hours of monotonous, uneventful waiting that is the reality – ‘stacking time’ as it is called in the US - interspersed with seconds of sometimes lethal drama. ‘Time’ manages to reconcile this temporal disconnect with some interesting and daring sub-plots including Graham’s character being tempted into corruption to protect his son, who is himself banged up in another jail. Staff corruption is an unreported and sensitive fact of life in many of our jails albeit present in only a small minority of those who wear the uniform. While much of this is driven by financial gain, in the case of Officer McNally it is threats to harm his son if some as yet unspecified favours aren’t delivered to the prisoner who exposes his secret that is the driver here. It will be fascinating to see which way McNally jumps in this excruciating moral dilemma. The agony and stress of it is already palpable in Graham’s superb performance.
Prisoner Bean, considerably older than most of his fellow cons and a walking masterclass of obsolete civilian manners is rapidly becoming a target for a particularly nasty predator who exploits his naivete and inexperience. He’s been robbed of food and a precious phone call to his estranged son has been terminated. I predict there will be (more) blood on the carpet as this quandary works itself out.
Former inmates and staff I’ve spoken with about this opening episode are unanimous – it is as close to doing time as we’ve seen on our screens. It’s not perfect of course. Those of us involved as givers or receivers of state sanctioned violence can wince a bit at the portrayal of use of force. But this is a footnote to an otherwise flawless portrayal. There are buckets of trauma but humanity refuses to completely yield its hold on the men on either side of the cell door. This is not a comfortable watch by any means, but the blazing portrayal of both protagonists, jailer and jailed, in all their flawed humanity makes you yearn for their redemption. I’ll be watching and hoping. Lock down your Sunday evenings. Time flies.
Ian Acheson is a former prison officer. 'Time' airs on BBC One at 9pm on Sundays.