Acting titan Sean Bean stars in Time, a prison drama and cracking thriller

A UK prison is the setting for Cracker writer Jimmy McGovern’s new drama Timewatch it now on Neon. It’s heartening to see he still has a knack for seeing every side of his characters’ stories, writes Tony Stamp.

I must have been a teenager when I first saw Cracker, the gritty, gruelling UK show that made Robbie Coltrane a star for his role as the title character, a vice-ridden police psychologist. It felt wonderfully grown-up, a show that empathised with its wrongdoers as much as its flawed hero, but didn’t excuse them of their awful crimes.

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The man behind the show was writer Jimmy McGovern, and in hindsight, this might have been my first exposure to the idea of an auteur. Directors came and went but McGovern penned most episodes, and Cracker was always soaked in his empathetic tone.

I wasn’t expecting a new show from him in 2021, so Time comes as a wonderful surprise. And it’s heartening to see he still has a knack for seeing every side of his characters’ stories.

Sean Bean is hugely sympathetic in the lead role, a school teacher called Mark Cobden who killed someone in a hit and run while drunk, and finds himself jailed for four years. Tall order getting us on this guy’s side, right? Well, McGovern is up to the task.

It helps having an acting titan like Bean on board. When character actors reach a certain age you can just stick a camera on their face and it’s inherently entertaining, and his has become wonderfully rumpled. Mark is honest and open, and carries the gentle aura of a good teacher; he’s also a man crushed with guilt, and Bean shows it in his physicality, moving through the prison like someone wading against a tide of trauma. He’s an actor who knows how to use a close-up to his advantage, capturing every pained micro-expression on that deeply lined face.

Mark isn’t an idiot, but he’s naive. It’s immediately apparent that he’s out of his depth in the knick. A man who’s never been in a fight, whose career involves teaching children, is now surrounded by felons, and you feel terrified for him. (It should be said that McGovern makes sure to sketch in the surrounding characters too—these aren’t just baddies. By and large, they’re people like Mark who made one bad mistake and have to live with it).

At first, Time seems like a show about the realities of the UK prison system, and that’s definitely part of it. There are moments where you can feel McGovern ticking off injustices, like inmates who had never done drugs before giving them a go because they’re facing a life sentence, or victims of violence refusing to ‘grass’ on their cellmates because there’s nothing to stop further attacks. There are acts of violence outlined in such specific detail that you suspect McGovern did some serious research.

But the show is also a cracking thriller. Stephen Graham plays a prison guard, and for a while he’s the show’s moral compass, a man who knows the system is flawed but is just trying to do his best from within it. As he gets drawn into a situation outside his control the stakes get higher, and McGovern shows how helpless these men are in the face of uncaring man-made structures. Graham is as phenomenal an actor as Bean. His role is smaller, and their two stories play out separately but occasionally intersect, allowing for moments of powerhouse performance. It’s just a pleasure to watch them work.

A range of other characters orbit the pair, and some of the more extravagant inmates make an impression, but mostly this is a two-hander. Only a handful of women inhabit the story—wives, mothers and one staff member, but McGovern gives them each moments of grace and complexity (the more I see of his work the more I’m reminded of one of cinema’s great empaths, the late Jonathan Demme).

At its heart Time is about redemption. It’s not a spoiler to say Bean’s character has a long stint to consider his actions, as well as learn about his cellmates and where they went wrong. The show’s arc bends toward a sequence that seems engineered for maximum emotional impact, McGovern expertly guiding you to this point, placing you in perspectives you might not have shared, and then dropping the hammer. It’s honestly devastating, a quiet moment with no emotional fireworks that’s one of the saddest things I’ve seen depicted in some time.

And I know that might put off some readers, but Time is not a slog, and its pathos isn’t unearned. Like the best drama, this is a pleasure to watch, as well as ponder afterwards. It’s hard to shake the feeling too that McGovern has mellowed in his old age (he’s seventy-one). There’s a humanist theme running through all this, and while tragedy strikes at both the beginning and end of the show, if you’re anything like me you’ll be left feeling good about the world. It’s often very complex, and sometimes sad, but well, that’s life, isn’t it?