It’s the noise first. The constant noise. Then the sudden denial of space. Then the unrelenting grey and the metal, oozing rancour from every pore.
This is what you get from the opening scenes of Jimmy McGovern’s new three-part prison drama, Time, as Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) is taken to jail. In the beginning, we’re not sure why he’s in the clink, but he seems different from the rest of his new inmates.
There’s constant shouting in the transport vehicle, with one inmate accusing another of being a ‘grass’. Non-stopp shouting, aggression and malevolence.
As Cobden is taken from the transport into the prison, we then get an idea what being inside is really like: the rigorous adherence to protocol carried out by weather-worn staff who go through the motions. The personality checks, the questions, the box-ticking, the physical checks, and then for Cobden, finally into his shared cell.
It’s a blistering, terrifying start the the story.
But this is a prison drama, and you do wonder how it can possibly differ or bring something new to the sub-genre. We’ve seen the Ambiguous Prisoner in a prison drama before – you almost root for him because he seems remorseful, was a teacher on the outside, is quiet and wants to do his time without any trouble; as opposed to his contemporaries, who seem intent to engage in the game of survival of the fittest.
We soon find out that Cobden is an ex-teacher who has been sent down for four years because he killed someone while drunk-driving. He killed a man? Does this make us, the viewers, root for him less? It’s a complex moral dilemma.
In prison dramas we also often see the inmates who try to establish a territorial advantage of others, and we finally see the Ambiguous Prisoner come to terms with his surroundings and even find a way to survive in all the madness and the carnage.
All this plays out as expected in Time, but, as ever, what brings this to life and makes it different are the characters. And they’re brilliantly realised by the likes of Bean (who just seems to be getting better with age), Stephen Graham, Siobhan Finneran, Sue Johnston and others, who play the inmates with some serious edge.
What’s also brilliant about Time is the actual writing. McGovern is a genius, we know, but here he drops little bombshells into the narrative that test the characters to the limit.
For Cobden it’s navigating prison life and the inmates he encounters, from the vulnerable Bernard (Aneurin Barnard), who Cobden’s thrust into a cell with and who self-harms to a shocking extent, and then the unhinged Johnno (James Nelson-Royce) who is laying down test after test, ones that Cobden does not rise to (so far).
(There’s one particularly terrifying scene where Johnno storms into Cobden’s cell and takes some sugar. He takes it to his cell, where he boils it up in a kettle and then proceeds to go into another cell to thrown it in the face of the same inmate who he claimed was a grass in the opening scenes. Boiling sugar syrup sticks to the skin and causes more damage.)
And then we get prison officer Eric (Stephen Graham). He’s hard but fair, but is also placed in a difficult, morally contentious situation. We not only find out that Eric’s son, Daniel, is also in (a different) prison, but now an inmate is trying to blackmail him – do their bidding or his son gets beaten up, or worse. It’s one of a few interesting little bombshells that give Time a real edge, urgency and an added piquancy.
Sean Bean and Stephen Graham have worked together in a Jimmy McGovern project before, so you knew they were going to be great together. And, in Time, their chemistry works a treat in what is a grim, Brutalist but propulsive and hugely compelling drama.
Time is on BBC One in the UK and iPlayer