Jimmy McGovern on new BBC prison drama Time: “I didn’t want to write an easy villain”

Time stars Stephen Graham and Sean Bean.

Big RT Interview: Jimmy McGovern (GETTY)

When Jimmy McGovern was growing up in his beloved Liverpool – where he and the remaining seven of his siblings still live, with nephews and nieces galore – it was a source of pride to his family and their neighbours that only one of the residents on their street had gone to prison.

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“It’s a working-class boast,” the writer laughs wryly. “You say this to a middle-class person who doesn’t understand and they go, ‘The fact that one went to prison is shameful.’ But you couldn’t imagine the street I was born in. They were two-up, two-down rat-ridden slums, they really were. And my poor mother brought up nine kids and that was nothing, that was small. There were Irish Catholic families of 13…”

It’s beginning to sound a little like a Monty Python sketch, I dare to joke (McGovern is the most approachable and warm of interviewees). “Yeah, born in a shoe and all that!” he cracks back. “But, you know, it isn’t shameful. In a poverty-stricken area you do get people ending up in prison. I can only speak for myself, but as a young man when I was skint, I did things that were very naughty in order to survive.”

What sort of things? “Just pinching and stealing things. Nothing major. I wasn’t brave enough to do a big bank robbery or anything like that – but I could’ve ended up on the wrong side of the law. I could have, but I didn’t and I was lucky.”

The much-garlanded writer of TV dramas cut his teeth on the Channel 4 soap Brookside before going on to create ITV’s Cracker in the 1990s: “I found the only way to write Cracker was to be like Cracker – yeah, ‘method writing’ – so I was smoking like a chimney and drinking like a fish.” As with BBC One’s The Lakes, The Street and The Accused and ITV’s BAFTA-winning Hillsborough, the docu-drama widely credited for sparking a fresh inquiry into the football stadium tragedy, his new three-part BBC One drama is powerful, affecting and urgent.

The aptly named Time is set in a prison and revolves principally around two characters from either side of the cell doors: decent prison officer Eric McNally (Stephen Graham), who is forced into corruption to ensure the safety of his imprisoned son, and prisoner Mark Cobden (Sean Bean), a teacher who has killed a man when drunk-driving and is seeking atonement while learning how to avoid getting murdered himself while inside.

It’s McGovern’s third time working with both actors and he created their characters expressly for them: “I love the two of them – they’re my favourite actors along with Chris Eccleston.”

The writer only recently learnt that Graham’s father is Black, which fascinated him: “I said, ‘You’re not Black,’ and he said, ‘I am!’” Does Graham identify as a Black person? “I don’t know how he identifies but he’s the most relaxed, unburdened man you’ll ever meet in your life.”

If you tell me Sean Bean is too, I won’t believe you! “Oh, Sean’s not Black,” McGovern says, misunderstanding me. “Sean’s a white working-class Yorkshire man.”

But if you’re about to tell me he’s completely chilled and relaxed… “No, he’s OK, Sean – he’s a lovely man. I love him to bits, like.”

McGovern first stepped into a prison to conduct writing workshops shortly after he moved from teaching to scripting. Recently he’s worked with the Sycamore project, which, under the auspices of the prison chaplaincy and led by volunteers, teaches the principles of restorative justice by focusing on victim awareness.

As someone who works in prisons myself, with Liberty Choir UK (a charity I helped found seven years ago), I was struck by how accurately Time captures their institutional inhumanity. What civilised society would tolerate conditions that you wouldn’t accept for animals, where two men in a tiny cell built in Victorian times for one are forced to eat and defecate virtually on top of one another?

But I was also touched by how McGovern caught those rare, surprising moments of grace that can and do offer tiny shafts of light in a very dark place: the kindness and concern of an educated prisoner discreetly teaching an illiterate but proud fellow inmate to read and write; a caring and imaginative chaplain (Siobhan Finneran; the Time cast is a roll call of great British television actors) transforming the intolerable into something almost transcendent when she offers a prisoner the chance to experience a virtual funeral after he is denied the right to attend his father’s in person.

“I’m really proud of that scene,” he says. “I’m so glad you picked that out. I loved that sequence. I’ve never seen that done before, have you? It came to me and it’s amazing, isn’t it?”

I’ve witnessed similar moments of reprieve in prison – how hard men can show emotion and even weep if they feel safe; alongside terrible events, made more terrible by how commonplace they are: suicide and self-harming, which has increased by 24 per cent in female prisons during COVID. Prisoners have been locked in their cells for 23 hours or more.

Mental health has always been a major problem in prisons and has dramatically deteriorated in the pandemic due to deprivation of fresh air, education, work, exercise, visits from family and activities, such as choirs, that offer relief from despair and can give prisoners the strength to survive another week.

Time
Time (BBC)
BBC

Of course, McGovern sings from the same songbook as I do – not literally; he insists his voice is terrible – and it’s hard at times to remember that this is supposed to be an interview, not a meeting between like-minded people searching for a solution to an inhumane institution no longer fit for purpose.

The main answer to making prisons work better is to empty them, he says: “If you decriminalised drugs, you’d have empty prisons. And I’d do something about the cells; you shouldn’t eat and s**t in the same room. There should also be a lot more meaningful activity, education and training. If only there was a way of altering the minds of the British public when it comes to sentencing. It’s so easy for any political party to say ‘tough on crime’ and get elected. It’s ridiculous.”

Also ridiculous is the endless turnover of justice ministers: “I think there’s been about 10 just in the last few years!” He singles out Michael Gove and Rory Stewart as ministers of justice who have actively attempted to implement positive change.

The dynamic between prison officer and prisoner – both trapped in different ways – came to McGovern early on. During his research and in his various stints working in prison, he never encountered what he calls “a real baddie” of a prison officer. “I thought they were people doing s**tty jobs in s**tty circumstances with very little money and so I can see the temptation is there. But I never came across an out-and-out b*****d – that’s probably because I wasn’t allowed to see the out-and-out b*****ds!” he grins. “I didn’t want to write an easy villain. And yet stuff [contraband] does get into British prisons through staff. That is one way it does get in and I had that story early on.”

Graham delivers a multi-layered subtle portrait of a prison officer who is a man of honour and integrity until he can’t be. Bean’s story is, McGovern says, “my kind of story – a man who needs to atone, but can’t even begin to, who’s paralysed with guilt and grief and suffering. And of course he gets picked on. The only thing he does know about prison – having seen what happens to the other grass [who gets scalded horribly] – is that he knows he cannot grass.”

In one of several hard-to-stomach scenes, a prisoner bites the ear off another. “Yes. I always had that in mind – the kind of level you’ve got to sink to in order to protect yourself.”

The brutalising nature of being in the belly of the beast, as prison has been called, is conveyed by the deafening cacophony of heavy doors slamming, men shouting at the top of their voices, banging of metal bars. This is given an arresting counterpoint by the gentle melancholic music of Elgar-like strings suggesting the sadness, confusion and regret that are nearly always present when the men are alone in their cells, unmasked from the bravado and the bluster of their strut in the wings.

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McGovern knew the prison drama clichés he would avoid, such as homosexual rape in the showers. Some of these, he says, are not even based on reality. “You know how they always show a riot in the prison canteen? I have a very good friend who I’ve known for 50 years and only the other day I said to him, ‘You do know that prisoners don’t eat in canteens.’ He was shocked when I told him they pick up their food and take it back to eat in their cell – one person sitting on the lavatory, the other one on the lowest bunk. He was absolutely gobsmacked.”

There are some viscerally graphic scenes around self-harm in the first episode – how did he feel when he saw them? “It’s funny because it always happens to me and maybe to all writers – what we see in our mind’s eye is often less graphic than what appears on the screen. Having said that, I was served by a brilliant director [Lewis Arnold, Des, Broadchurch] so I’m not knocking him on this, but it was maybe a little more graphic than I envisaged it to be – but not that much more.”

Liberty Choir holds regular concerts in non-COVID times in HMP Wandsworth, in which prisoners perform with the volunteers who come together for weekly sessions in a mixed choir, in front of an audience of prisoners’ families and friends. The dynamic in the hall, with children running up to hug their fathers and where partners and wives, parents, grandparents or just supportive friends get to see their loved one in a different, joyous light, transforms a harsh environment. Time shows a similarly radiant moment when a child runs across the room at visiting time and everything changes in an instant: “It’s a beautiful meeting scene that, isn’t it? All you see is love.”

Or when Mark’s mother (Sue Johnston) – his parents visit him regularly – says, “You’re here as punishment, not for it.” Is that yours? “No, it’s not mine. I’ve heard it said before about British prisons and I can’t remember where, but I clocked it when I heard it.”

He’s talking on a Zoom call set up by his wife Eileen – they’ve recently celebrated their golden wedding anniversary – in his office across the lawn from their home. Behind him is a blue plaque that he takes down to show me, which says: “JIMMY McGOVERN Grandad since 2002, Health & Safety Expert Lives Here.”

The McGoverns have three children, all of whom are in their late 40s, Nicky, Joanne and Jimmy, and four teenage grandchildren: Hannah, Nancy, Tom and Jimmy Jr. “I’m a typical grandad,” he says. “Every time they come, I worry about their safety so they call me the health and safety expert.”

Despite the serious subjects we tackle, there’s often an air of merriment to the proceedings because of McGovern’s frequent laughter and the twinkle in his eyes. The short vowels and Scouse thud are still very much intact, as is the occasional ghost of his childhood stutter when the odd word stubbornly sticks. He talks about his memories of the 11 members of his family living in their little house, four boys to a bedroom until he was 10, the numbers thinning out as his older siblings married and left home: “Me mam would be singing Nat King Cole’s When I Fall in Love [he breaks into song, tunefully, despite his earlier protestations] as she washed the oilcloth over the table.” Greenside is still there, he says, “but now it’s got these pretty little houses built by the much-maligned Militant Tendency in the 80s.”

McGovern has always worn his politics on his sleeve, and his loyalty to the BBC, with its lack of advertisements and public broadcasting ethos, is well known. So what does he make of new director-general Tim Davie being a Tory who donated more than £400,000 to the Conservatives? “I don’t wanna get into that,” he says hurriedly. “That’s the one thing I’m not prepared to answer. It sounds corny, but I do love the BBC and I’d always work for them, I suspect – no matter who’s in charge.”

He’s sensitive to the criticism levelled at him for supposedly perpetuating the negative stereotype of the Scouser: “You know, ‘What do you call a Scouser in a suit?’ ‘The accused.’ ‘What do you call a Scouser in a big house?’ ‘A burglar.’ When a drama works, it’s because it’s about flawed characters and because I shoot in this city, giving jobs to my own people, I get accused of reinforcing that negative stereotype by the Liverpool Echo who can’t even be a***d to print here, which is unfortunate.

“I love this city and the older I get, the more I love it. The architecture is second to none and you walk along the river and you see a proper river. I’m sorry but Manchester hasn’t got a river like the Mersey, you know what I mean?”

He reads each of his character’s lines out loud so they have a Scouse inflection. “I don’t think I’ve ever written a character who hasn’t been part of me. Even the psychopaths in Cracker would be some deep and horrible part of me.” He may have drunk and smoked more to get into the head of Robbie Coltrane’s criminal psychologist Fitz, but the gambling addiction wasn’t a stretch at all: “I was a terrible gambler. I nearly lost everything to gambling.”

McGovern used to pride himself on his discipline for writing, but now he can be distracted by the smallest things, such as fixing his lawn. Is it because, at 71, he gets tired easily? “I don’t know,” he smiles, with a sort of rueful bemusement. “I think it’s a lack of hunger. I’m more successful now than I was – when you’re younger you want success and appreciation. I don’t particularly go after that now. I don’t really go for the baubles.”

If anything deserves baubles it’s Time, I say. “Do you think so?” A modest laugh. “Well, of course, I would love that.”

If you want to see what we thought of the series, you should read our Time review.

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Time airs tonight on BBC One at 9pm. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our handy TV Guide.

This edition of The Big RT Interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.