Time review: An avant-garde experiment in what prison with Sean Bean would be like

This prison drama set in Liverpool is solid, sturdy and just a little slow

Ed Cumming
Sunday 06 June 2021 22:01
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Time trailer

As far as is discernible from the first episode, the plot of Time, Jimmy McGovern’s new prison drama, goes something like this: Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) is off to jail. He ran someone over when he was drunk. His estranged wife doesn’t want to let his son talk to him. We don’t yet know why. On the other side of the prison divide, Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) is a decent screw, civil with his charges but cursed with a temper. He also has a son, himself in prison, which makes him a blackmail target for well-connected gangsters.

Story-wise, that’s your lot. In other respects, Time seems to be an avant-garde experiment in replicating what it would be like to do time with Sean Bean. As one of his earlier characters might have said, one does not simply walk into the slammer. In the opening minutes, we see the lapsed catholic Cobden progress through all the holy stations of the prison-drama. There’s Sean in the noisy van, Sean in the first-night holding cell, Sean crouching to have his bum checked, Sean in his new tracksuit, moping into his cell, Sean having his lunch nicked, Sean sitting in the exercise ground, Sean navigating his psychopath self-harming cellmate Bernard (Aneurin Barnard) and the yobs across the hallway. He’s a gentle soul, Cobden, a teacher on the outside, a model of stoicism inside, but he’s going to have to learn to handle himself. Sean is basically your dad in prison, except your mum still wants to sleep with him.

To be fair to her, being locked up with Sean is not without its consolations. The granite-grey palette in which everything is saturated suits his craggy face. The part is less expansive than those he sometimes takes on, giving him chance to brood and mull. Cobden is a glacier rather than a box of fireworks. Guilt weighs heavily on him as he shuffles around his new home.

Graham gets less airtime in this first episode, but "conflicted prison guard" is the kind of role an AI might have generated for him. Graham bows to few of his contemporaries for output: the past few years alone have seen him in White House Farm, Line of Duty, Save Me and The Virtues, as well as a clutch of films. He attacks the part with his usual bulldog bustle.

McGovern brought his two stars together a decade ago for Accused. You can see why they trust him. He is one of our more consistent scriptwriters. Since starting his career more than thirty years ago with Brookside and Cracker, he has produced dozens of heartfelt, socially committed dramas, including The Lake and The Street. His politics are never far from the surface, but he builds a compassionate case without forgetting the drama. It’s a believable vision of a penal system in which decent men are put into impossible positions, and from which inmates are likely to come out in worse shape than they went in. Although the two stars inevitably draw your gaze, the cast around them, including Graham’s real-life wife Hannah Walters playing McNally’s partner Sonia, are impressive. Time is solid, sturdy and just a little slow. I’m sure it will be good for me to do the stretch, but I find myself slightly longing to hop the fence.

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