There is a moment near the start of Jimmy McGovern’s latest drama, Time (BBC One), that perfectly encapsulates his genius. Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) is arriving for processing at the prison in which he will serve his four-year sentence. Among the questions barked at him – name, age, is he on any medication – is one about his religion. Nervous and disoriented, he mumbles something about not really believing in God. “I’ll put you down as Anglican then,” comes the brisk reply (and standard joke, though not here played as one). “No, no,” Mark responds, kicked into focus. “More … more lapsed Catholic.”
It’s irrelevant in the grand scheme of things – Time is a drama about the supposed strengths and many failures of the penal system and Mark’s religion affects his experiences inside not one iota. But it is the perfect demonstration and measure of McGovern’s two greatest strengths – his psychological acuity and his ability to evoke an entire interior world with one brief exchange. He knows a cradle Catholic, even in the most dire straits, would be recalled to himself under the threat of being demoted to Anglican. And he tells us something about the core of the man who is about to be tested as never before, as he enters a world of rules, regulations, petty bullying and sudden violence. It is a place of shifting alliances – a wing full of men who may be mad or bad but are almost always, directly or indirectly, dangerous to know.
The officer in charge is Eric McNally (Stephen Graham), a man with 22 years’ service under his belt. His son, David, is serving a short sentence in another prison and harm will come to him – unless McNally starts working for Jackson Jones (a realistically, mercilessly terrifying performance from Brian McCardie). It’s an offer he refuses, until David is beaten unconscious. Another McGovern speciality – the study not of a good man gone bad, but of an ordinary man placed under extraordinary duress. What should he do, what would you do, how would anybody bear it? McGovern’s treatments of the establishment (in 2002’s Sunday, for example), of institutions (such as the army in Reg), of the church (in Broken, which also starred Bean) or of the police and the media (in Hillsborough) are always shot through with considerations of the more intangible matters of individual conscience. We are reminded that inhumane systems and catastrophic events are the creation of – as well as sometimes the masters of – the people within them.
Back to Mark, who replies “I killed a man” when asked by inmates what he’s in for. His cellmate, Bernard (Aneurin Barnard), a disturbed young man who relieves his mental suffering by cutting himself, works out that it was by drunk-driving. We learn the details of Mark’s crime mostly through the nightmares and flashbacks that haunt him. In later episodes, the question of atonement and redemption and how they fit into a punitive regime is turned over, anatomised and answers found in places expected and unexpected.
The first episode is inescapably harrowing, as Mark learns what his place is in the new order, and what it is going to take – in practical and mental terms – to survive it. But it is carefully calibrated not to descend into abject despair and give us an excuse to look away. There are enough points of light to keep you from feeling alone in the darkness, notably Siobhan Finneran’s prison chaplain, Mary-Louise, but also the strained-but-solid loving bond between McNally and his wife, Sonia (Hannah Walters), and McNally’s efforts to keep his wing in order even as he is pulled into the corruption beneath.
If McGovern has a weakness it is one of passion – he can devolve into agitprop on occasion. Here, it’s kept to a minimum. There are a few moments (a speech from Bernard, for example, about the cost of housing prisoners) that feel bolted on rather than worked into the drama. But, overwhelmingly, it is elements like the rough, twisted kindness of McNally when he’s called to attend the boy’s latest bout of cutting that are left to evoke the profound distortions of the system.
The performances of Bean and Graham are, even though we have come to expect brilliance from them both, astonishing. So, too, are those from everyone in smaller roles, none of which is underwritten or sketchy, and who thicken the drama into something more profoundly moving and enraging at every turn. Time well spent.