TW: Mentions of rape/abuse
Rating – ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The latest BBC crime drama to bless our screens, Time, is an outstanding triumph. Not only is it masterfully crafted, continuously both terrifying and heart-breaking, it sends a profoundly important message to a nation whose prison system is in dire need of radical reform.
Sean Bean stars as an alcoholic whose recklessness has landed him a four year stretch in a British jail, with filming taking place within the now decommissioned Shrewsbury Prison. And this ‘fictional’ jail is indeed very British. Like so many real-life prisons in the neo-Dickensian nightmare this nation seems determined to wander into, it is understaffed, underfunded and entirely unfit for purpose.
Bean’s performance as a terrified first-time inmate is deserving of the mountain of critical acclaim that has been awarded to it. It would be easy for a sub-par actor to launch into frustrating melodrama, continually wailing at his cell walls or whimpering every word. Yet this is a protagonist played with a calculated subtlety that is moving and engaging because above all else, it is genuinely believable. When he does erupt into sheer terror and anguish, these episodes punctuate an elsewhere understated performance in a way that makes them all the more believable.
The forever brilliant Stephen Graham plays the part of an upstanding prison officer, whose incarcerated son means he is the target of an insidious gang who are determined to exploit him. Again, this is stellar casting and fantastic acting working in harmony to produce something truly special. It is perhaps the veteran actor’s finest performance, which, given his exploits elsewhere including an awe-inspiring stint in Line of Duty, is no small achievement.
Whilst brilliant, the two leading men do not deserve all the credit. In a way that I unfortunately don’t think is common to every BBC drama, every single performance across the three-part mini-series is faultless. The prisoners, from mentally ill victims of abuse to heartless mobsters, are each wonderfully unique and well-developed characters. The wife of the prison officer is played by Hannah Walters, Stephen Graham’s wife in real life too, and the chemistry, anguish and misery that bleeds through the screen because of this ingenious casting decision is undeniable. Even actors who make just fleeting appearances, like a panel of deadpan probation officers, are all up to the task. The immersion into the dark world of Britain’s bleak prisons is never broken.
And it isn’t just performances alone that mean this immersion remains steadfast. The relentlessly cluttered framing of shot after shot and the sudden transitions into close-ups mean the camera is routinely used to create a distinct sense of claustrophobia. Moreover, not enough praise can be heaped upon the use of sound in Time. From the noise of makeshift weapons clunking together, to the slam of heavy prison doors and the screams of those who are brutalised by their fellow inmates and the inadequate system itself, the programme assaults our senses in a way that is genuinely disturbing. Here and elsewhere, the BBC drama is no less fantastic than an Oscar-winning Hollywood film might be. It is the opposite of amateurish.
Such an impressive mastery of audio-visual technique is accompanied by stunning writing, as the plots of prisoner and prison officer painfully intertwine. It never feels like the writers are trying to tell two tales at once in a desperate bid to show different perspectives; the transitions between the two characters never feel haphazard or rushed. Not a single scene, or even a single shot, feels unnecessary or out of place. Both stories are important, both are impactful, both might just make you cry in the way that only the best television can.
Yet viewers aren’t just meant to feel sorrowful while watching Time. The programme has a potent, vital message in the age of destitute privatised prisons and a home secretary (Priti Patel) who wouldn’t be out of place if cast as a pantomime villain thanks to her sadistic enthusiasm to reinstate the death penalty and her fondness of retribution over rehabilitation.
Time speaks out for a group of people who very few, not even those that label themselves as progressive and forward thinking, want to stand up for. Saying that prisoners deserve a degree of dignity and rehabilitation is hardly a vote winner. The issue is dexterously avoided by politicians of all stripes. The idea of a Scandinavian-style effort to rehabilitate, rather than totally crush, those that have done wrong is likely a horrifying thought for much of the British public, or at least for many of its leading journalists and political commentators that shape our national debates.
It is at this moment that Time dares to step forward, a programme that boldly proclaims what is becoming blindingly obvious – that the British prison system is backwards, broken and in need of urgent radical reform. For a start, when one thinks of prisons, many might believe they are stacked full to the brim with scores of Peter Sutcliffes. And yes, there are many killers, rapists and abusers that deserve serious retribution because of their diabolical actions. But amongst them are countless young men who came from broken homes, who are profoundly mentally unwell or who are so dependent on drugs and stricken by poverty that they steal to fund their habit, not people who have carried out heinous crimes.
Many of these people are sick, but they are treated as filth, not patients. Many are impoverished youngsters who serve sentences for drug possession and distribution. Of course, we don’t treat hedge fund managers or politicians who abuse cocaine like scum. The same is even true of countless middle-class students at Edinburgh and elsewhere, who eagerly sniff, smoke and swallow and rarely face any real consequences. It is those in over-policed and underfunded metropolitan areas who are made to suffer the brunt of a wrongfully criminalised drugs trade that so many enjoy the fruits of.
It isn’t that these people are blameless, but British justice is sorely lacking even in its own stated aims. You don’t make the rest of us safer if you treat minor criminals with such despicable disdain that Britain threatens to top the charts for suicides in prison and for reoffending rates outside of it in advanced economies. You do the opposite and destroy people in the process.
Time doesn’t seek to lecture you on any of this, or simply list damning statistics about the state of our prisons. It screams its message through the same aforementioned attributes that make it brilliant. Devastating performances show that many of these people are still just that – people, humans and not monsters who should be sentenced to repeated rape or other such mistreatment. Sight and sound reinforce just how horrifying and traumatising this environment is for people on either side of the cast iron bars. And the nature of a brilliantly crafted plot rams home that prison is so often ineffective at combatting crime, instead often an arena of the nefarious criminal activity it is intended to prevent.
Time is as brilliant as it is important. This is some of the finest television ever aired in recent times and if for some reason you haven’t already, you should find three hours to ensure it is some of the finest television you have ever watched. It is unmissable.
Image: 9EkieraM1 via Wikimedia Commons