In the second episode of Jimmy McGovern’s Time, Daniel is sitting opposite the parents of the man he stabbed to death. He’s serving 21 years in prison, and as part of restorative justice, is asking for their forgiveness. They refuse. “You killed him so as not to lose face,” says the mother. “I thought it was anger, jealousy. But saving face? It’s unforgivable.” A tear rolls down his cheek.
This is one of the quieter moments in Time. An unblinking meditation on the UK’s prison system, Jimmy McGovern’s new three-part drama slices open a world of corruption, violence and unremitting despair. Though the stars are Sean Bean and Stephen Graham – both of whom have collaborated with McGovern before – the lesser-known Jack McMullen gives an astonishing performance, moving adroitly between bravado and vulnerability.
Like Graham, McMullen is a scouser, and he found working with television’s most in-demand actor inspiring. “I’ve never told him this because it’s always a working environment, but I can’t overstate the effect that seeing him on TV had on me when I was growing up,” says the 30-year-old over Zoom. “I saw someone who spoke like me do proper, proper stuff. It’s helped me see there’s a path for me.”
McMullen had no formal training. His parents put him into local acting classes when he was a hyperactive child, which led to a role on McGovern’s Channel 4 soap Brookside aged 10, and he’s learned on the job ever since. “I’ve had an underlying feeling of being under-qualified – a bit of imposter syndrome,” he says.
It was a surreal but important moment, then, when Graham came into McMullen’s trailer after they’d finished filming. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Don’t ever doubt yourself.’ I needed that. I have always felt like I’m winging it a bit.”
If he’s winging it, you wouldn’t know. As Daniel in Time, he is equal parts adolescent thug and vulnerable boy. Splenetic and swaggering one minute, confused and remorseful the next, McMullen switches nimbly between the two versions of this sensitive young man.
He has previous when it comes to playing troublemakers. His first role was as the mischievous Josh Dixon in Brookside, winning him the British Soap Award for Best Newcomer. He went on to play bad boy Finn Sharkey in Waterloo Road, a gang member in Little Boy Blue (which also starred Graham) and a playful prankster – the real-life mechanic Charlie Agapiou – in Ford v Ferrari. But this new role encourages him to dig deeper, and it pays off.
McMullen acknowledges that many of his roles have fitted into the “cheeky chappie” category that young Northern actors are so often stuck in. But Daniel, he hopes, is a step away from that. “That was something that I felt comfortable with when I was really young,” he says. “But Daniel is really different, so I’m slowly breaking the mould with that, hopefully.”
He calls stereotypical casting “tiresome”. “It comes from who’s telling the stories. Sometimes I read scripts with working class stories and they’re not written by someone from that background. That’s what needs to change. It is, slowly. I am aware of that and the last thing I want to do is perpetuate any negative stereotypes.”
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Inauthenticity isn’t an issue with this series; McGovern was one of nine children born to working class parents in Liverpool. The veracity of McMullen’s performance in Time might also have been helped by the fact that someone close to him works in the prison service. “I’d wanted to tell this story for a long time,” he says. “The general public don’t know a lot about what prisons are like but they’re publicly funded institutions, so we should. There’s a mental health epidemic and prisons are often used as an easy answer to that complex problem.”
He adds that while Time is not a documentary “by any stretch of the imagination”, it is still true to life. “People really get to see what prison’s like and will hopefully come away questioning how possible any form of rehabilitation is in an environment like that.”
There’s a poignant scene where Graham’s prison officer is chastised by the mother of a mentally ill inmate who takes his own life. “You say he should have been in hospital,” he replies, “but that goes for half the men in this place. They should all be in mental hospitals, not in this nick. But there’s no room for them, so they stay here and we do the best we can.”
McMullen agrees with this point. “You’re not given adequate mental health training when you work in a prison – just how to stop people hurting themselves,” he says. “You’re not a therapist. And there are people who don’t need to go to prison. There’s too much of an emphasis on punishment in this country and demonising people when they’ve committed a crime, which is why it repeats over and over again. We never get to the root of why people are committing crime. It’s too easy to be like, ‘Oh that’s behind that closed door, there.’ But we’re all culpable in some way.”
McMullen was shocked by what he learnt from talking to prison officers for research. “The overwhelming thing for me was how different each wing is, because they’re completely run by the cons,” he says. “The prison officers don’t have the numbers or power to be in total control. So each one depends on what characters you’ve got in there. It’s terrifying. There isn’t anything you can stick to and go, ‘Alright, if I was to go to prison, I’d behave in this way.’”
Internal crime is rife. “Sometimes you might be asked to do something and if you don’t do it, you’re going to be in serious trouble, and if you do do it, you’re going to be in serious trouble,” he says. “Time puts you in the shoes of these normal people who are put in horrific circumstances where their moral compass is challenged. It’s chaos really, the fact there’s nothing to hold onto. You just have to see how you get on when you get there.”
Daniel, as it turns out, has been placed in an extremely volatile wing. Bullies at the prison drench their victims in boiling water mixed with sugar so it sticks to the skin, and soak their feet in turpentine before setting them alight. So often, onscreen depictions of prison focus on the misery or the boredom of it all. We rarely get a true sense of the horror. And it’s all the more frightening to see the savagery through the eyes of Bean’s gentle, bewildered English teacher.
McMullen hopes that people will be less “black and white” about jail after watching Time, and have a better understanding of how corruption spreads. “What Jimmy captures really well is that sometimes you can’t opt out,” he says.
How would he cope in prison? “Oh, I wouldn’t last five minutes. I don’t know what I’d do. I’m not built for it.” He grins. “I’ll be keeping my nose clean.”
‘Time’ is available in its entirety on BBC iPlayer. Episode two airs on BBC One on Sunday 13 June at 9pm
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