In the opinion of yours truly, a good British series is comprised of the following: a short story featuring great performances and with a lot to say, more often than not, with something uncomfortable to say. And that is exactly what’s on offer from “Time”, the latest work by Jimmy McGovern, and who would probably get on board with the three characteristics listed above, especially the uncomfortable part. Because this veteran BBC screenwriter has made a name for himself on British television with series, TV-movies and especially miniseries with a vocation for socially critical work in which he exposes the failures of British institutions. McGovern is the rightful heir to the throne of the great BBC dramas of the 60’s and 70’s, of those hard-hitting portrayals from Jim Allen, Tony Garnett and Ken Loach. And it is from this common school of thought that “Time” has arisen and reaches our screens, in Spain recently released on Movistar+. The miniseries stars two major names from British television, Stephen Graham (“The Virtues”) and Sean Bean (“Broken”) and takes an in-depth look at the current British prison system.
It’s a subject Jimmy McGovern was bound to get around to covering sooner or later. In recent years the screenwriter has commented on the cracks in the judicial system, and surely people will remember his TV-movie “Common” from 2014, in which a teenager is accused of murder without motive, or perhaps you might recall the series “Accused“, an anthology that explains 10 stories of characters who were brought to trial, many of them convicted without reason, which interestingly enough also featured both Stephen Graham and Sean Bean in one of the most memorable installments (if you haven’t seen it, you can still catch the series on Amazon Prime Video). In both cases the action ended with the judge’s decision. Now the screenwriter has crossed that line and explains what happens after the accused leave the Dock.
“Time” begins with a man, played by a dejected Sean Bean, being transported in a special vehicle on his way to prison after being convicted. After processing upon arrival, he will come face to face with the prison officer character played by Stephen Graham. The common bond the characters share is how the prison system beats both men down, each in a different way. From this point onwards and over the coming minutes, McGovern begins constructing a crude portrait of life in prison, being methodical in depicting the day-to-day procedures in the lives of prisoners and officers alike, while at the same time introducing a cast of characters who pull the curtains back on the deficiencies of a system that creates pain but that can hardly be deemed a path for reflection, peace with oneself or let alone rehabilitation. During one of the most dramatic scenes, one of these characters comments, “Many of them shouldn’t be here”, referring to the fragile mental health of a prisoner.
The extreme situation to which both our protagonists are slowly subjected is the driving force behind the story and what gets audiences hooked, while the exceptional performances from Sean Bean and Stephen Graham provide depth, humanity and dramatic gravity to characters increasingly forced to shoulder greater burden in their respective lives. Two men on opposite sides of the prison bars, even though both men are trapped, as they try to find something to cling onto. Viewers, also feeling suffocated, breathe a sigh of relief every time a character appears, like the nun played by Siobhan Finneran (“Happy Valley”), to offer a glimmer of decency in a world where anger and pain are inflicted on others rather than borne by the aggressors. The only modicum of fresh (cold) air that enters the cell is that which finds its way through the broken window where Bean’s character lies. In one scene he tries to repair it, covering the broken glass with a small piece of cardboard, as if McGovern were suggesting that you might be able to repair the window, but not the system, because that’s up to us, as he once again signs off on the model quality British series: short, top-notch performances and with plenty to say.