‘Time’ Opens the Cell Door on the Failures of British Prison Systems

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Source: BBC iPlayer

*spoilers ahead for the series Time*

Time is a three-part prison series following the traumatic yet formative journey of a teacher (Sean Bean) convicted of manslaughter through dangerous driving. The series is the latest offering in a long, canonical line of water-cooler BBC dramas, providing an urgent and starkly honest insight into British prison systems – one that’s been long overdue.

Created by Jimmy McGovern, writer of Cracker (1993-95) and Hillsborough (1996) esteem, Time presents a reliably gripping and exceedingly grim prison epic. We see Mark Cobden, a character not untypical of Bean’s more recent roles: flawed but ultimately good-hearted, navigate through a carceral culture in brutal conflict with his conscientious disposition. Meanwhile, Mark’s turbulent narrative lies adjacent to that of his prison officer Eric McNally (Stephen Graham): a paradoxically what-you-see-is-what-you-get character tormented by furtive familial suffering and shame.

Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) and Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) – Source: The Guardian, Matt Squire/PA

A Particularly British Prison Outlook

Fundamentally, Time is a prison drama, and as a member of this very specific genre, the series naturally takes inspiration from its maternal works. For example, it borrows the trope of day release, and its complexities, from Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2010). We also see the unconventional parole appeal sequence from Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) stunningly imitated, with a heart-breaking twist, by Northern Irish actor Jonathan Harden. However, while inevitably presenting patterns of prison universality seen elsewhere across the genre, what McGovern offers viewers is something that is very specific to British prisons; something that is not overtly political, only honest, but something that nevertheless portrays to us a harrowing insight into the failures of our country’s systemic management of life after sentencing.

For decades, modern prison systems in Britain have faced rising scrutiny, with some movements such as RAP (Radical Alternatives to Prison) identifying its failure as a vehicle for reforming offenders and calling for its abolition in favour of something more centred in communities. Beneath Time’s beautifully understated, yet nonetheless heart-wrenching, performances from its standout cast lies the evidence that Britain’s prisons aren’t doing in practice what they are theoretically designed to do. Having received praise for its accuracy by notable ex-inmates, including the Guardian’s prison correspondent Eric Allison, the underlying message of McGovern’s series, if we are to read between the iron bars, is that prison in the UK doesn’t help reform convicts; rather, it can often help to destroy them.

Jack McMullen as Daniel in ‘Time’ – Source: BBC/James Stack

Reform or Destroy?

This seems to be particularly applicable to younger offenders. Over the course of three instalments that can be broadly summarised in Mark’s formative journey as ‘trauma-survival-redemption’, we see Bernard, a boy plagued by serious mental illness, harm himself with razor blades and eventually commit suicide after being placed in isolation. After this, we watch Daniel, a young man informally mentored by Mark while sharing a cell, spiral into drug addiction after being relocated to a different part of the wing.

“You put a seriously ill boy in segregation and that’s when he decided to kill himself,” Bernard’s mother sobs to McNally as he unlocks his car. “You’d say he should’ve been in hospital and I agree with you,” he responds, “but that goes for half the men in this place… but there’s no room for them, so we stay here, and we do the best we can.” The conclusion we can draw from McGovern’s script? The system doesn’t work as it should. Even for those who make it out of prison, their prospects are not where they should be. In the UK, 75% of ex-inmates re-offend within nine years of release, and 39.3% within the first twelve months (UK Research and Innovation). Time suggests how British prisons fail to help people better themselves and instead rely unsustainably on spontaneous role models from within their prisoner cohorts, the Mark Cobden’s of the world, to influence positive change.

In the particularly powerful finale of the series, McGovern further exposes prisons to be governed by outdated practices – the only positive influences on the prisoners’ lives are shown to almost exclusively come from Church meetings – and arbitrary technicalities. A piece of colouring-in from one inmate’s daughter is nonsensically printed for him in monochrome under legislation, and Mark is heartbreakingly denied access at the last minute to his father’s funeral after the guards find his cellmate in possession of contraband.

Sean Bean as Mark Cobden – Source: BBC

A Cycle of Corruption 

Contrary to what I had initially expected from Stephen Graham’s character upon viewing the series trailer, Time shifts the focus away from the usual portrayal of sadist prison guards abusing their power and instead onto the failing system by which they act and abide. On introduction, Eric is a run-of-the-mill, hard-working family man: robust and thorny, as one would expect to find in his line of work, yet fair in equal measure. However, as the narrative progresses, we see him roped into the prison system’s shady underworld of corruption, organised crime, and racketeering after being blackmailed by an inmate with the safety of his son, a convict serving time at a different prison, used as leverage.

Unable to protect his son by navigation of the system, he is corrupted by a culture of clandestine criminality wherein personal connections define influence within the prison. “I had no choice, Joanne,” Eric chokes as he’s discovered smuggling drugs onto the wing. “I know,” the supervisor responds ashamedly. The ugly stains of corruption lie only a thin layer of paint beneath the surface of the prison walls, and all those in power can do is try to pretend that they don’t still see them permeating through. As the line between inmate and guard is blurred, and the revolving cycle of destruction persists, Eric ends the series as Mark begins it: in the cells, serving a four-year sentence.  

Aside from breath-taking performances from its star-studded cast, McGovern’s three-part drama opens the cell door on British prison systems’ lack of attention devoted to rehabilitating inmates, in favour of, in the words of Brendan’s parole hearing monologue, showing them “who’s boss.” 

Time’s social significance is immeasurable and, if that doesn’t do it for you, it’s also just a great bit of telly.

Words by Joe Harris 


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