When Mark Cobden enters prison in the first moments of Jimmy McGovern’s new drama, he soon learns that the question “What are you doing?” has another meaning. His fellow inmates aren’t asking him what he’s up to (it’s not like there’s much to do, anyway). They want to find out the length of his sentence, how much time he’s doing - and in discovering that, to get the measure of what kind of man he is, whether he is a threat, an ally, or someone to push around.
A former teacher consumed by guilt over his crime, Mark (a melancholy Sean Bean) falls into that latter category (“Do one, granddad,” one prisoner hisses back when Mark tries to remonstrate with him like he’s negotiating with a Year Nine who hasn’t done their homework). It seems he couldn’t be worse equipped for life inside, where sugar and boiling water aren’t just component parts for a nice cup of tea (you may want to avert your eyes during the most viscerally unpleasant scene involving a kettle since Line of Duty’s rogue prison guards roughed up Lindsay Denton), officers burst into cells wearing riot gear, and most of the inmates should, as one character points out, be in psychiatric care, not jail.
His personal support officer is Eric McNally, played by Stephen Graham, a scrupulous, decent guard with an unblemished record; he couldn’t be further from an Orange Is The New Black-style villain, getting off on abuses of power. When an inmate seeks to exploit a family secret, though, he finds himself forced to choose between his principles and the safety of those closest to him.
Mark and his fellow prisoners move through a world drained of colour: this institution seems to exist almost entirely in greyscale, punctuated only by dashes of light blue (the washed-out shade of the striped shirts worn for family visits) and burgundy (the colour of their work scrubs). One inmate receives “a black and white photocopy of a colouring in” from his young daughter - the original gets destroyed, in case it’s laced with spice.
It’s bleak stuff, and there’s a sense of grim, almost tragic inevitability to many of the stories that unfurl over the course of three episodes, especially Eric’s (made all the more wrenching by Graham’s measured performance). Yet amid all this grey, moments of unbearable sadness sometimes make way for glimmers of redemption. These flashes of hope in the gloom, along with the carefully handled, humanising glimpses into the back stories of a handful of other inmates, make this classic McGovern. There’s a certain didacticism to it, of course, but it never gets in the way of a powerful narrative.
It’s the second time that Bean and Graham have worked together, having previously starred alongside one another in an episode of McGovern’s 2010 anthology series Accused, and their scenes together are powerfully understated. This is much more than a two-hander, though, and it’d be remiss to overlook the quietly heartbreaking performances of the supporting cast, from Hannah Walters, married to Graham in real life, as Eric’s wife Sonia, to Jack McMullen as Mark’s young cellmate Daniel, whose lengthy sentence stretches out hopelessly in front of him, to the reliably brilliant Siobhan Finneran as the prison’s chaplin.
Their work, in tandem with McGovern’s devastating story-telling and striking direction from Lewis Arnold (who previously worked on shows such as Des and the third series of Broadchurch), ensures that these three hour-long episodes are difficult but essential viewing. It’s both deeply damning and touchingly hopeful, at once a searing indictment of a system where for the most part, as one of Mark’s cellmates puts it, “you come in bad and you go out worse” and a testament to our capacity to change.
Time is on BBC One on June 6 at 9pm. The full series will be available on BBC iPlayer after episode one has aired.