Time review: BBC One prison drama is brutal, must-watch television

The bleak three-part series is a must-see, both as a lesson on the British prison system, and a masterclass in acting.

Time
4.0 out of 5 star rating

At a recent press event, actor Stephen Graham described his hard-hitting new series, BBC One prison drama Time, as “difficult to watch”. He went on to theorise that the reason the three-parter is such difficult viewing is because it makes the audience think: about the British penal system; about the justice system; and about how many inmates should be in mental health units, not prisons.

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All of this is true, but the series would not be nearly as brutal viewing if it wasn’t for the two visceral central performances: from Graham himself, and Sean Bean. 

Creator Jimmy McGovern recently revealed that Time was written with Sean Bean and Stephen Graham in mind. “They’ve got faces you’d die for, you know?” he said. “Full of life; full of compassion and humanity. I think if you’re going to write about a prison, that’s the kind of thing you need, isn’t it? Compassion, humanity, experience – all in the lines of those faces.”

Under the gaze of director Lewis Arnold (Des), every line, every flicker of emotion on those two famous faces is pushed to the fore. We follow their characters closely, as each man takes on his own personal battles, their respective lives and struggles intersecting.

Bean plays Mark, a former teacher who faces four years in prison. He’s soft-spoken, and when he arrives, we discover he’s much older than the other new inmates in his cohort. One even dubs him “grandad,” his tone verging on cruel.

The bleak visuals of the series are intentional: the disused prison where Time was filmed was specially painted grey, to make the location feel more “miserable”. ‘Hopeless’ is also an accurate description.

Mark is woefully ill-equipped for the harsh realities of prison life. He acts as a stand-in for the viewer during the first episode’s more shocking moments, including a harrowing scene involving a boiled kettle and packet of sugar. 

Time
BBC

This is a contrast to Stephen Graham’s character Eric, a prison guard who has seen it all before. Eric, who is also a personal support officer to Mark, isn’t a bully or villain – in fact none of the guards we meet in episode one are. Eric is a decent, family man, but his principles are challenged over the course of the series when he crosses paths with one of the prison’s most dangerous inmates. 

Graham is given ample time to showcase his acting skills over the course of the series, but this first episode belongs to Bean. Mark’s quiet terror during his first few days in prison is painful to watch, as are the ways other, hardened inmates take advantage of his gentle nature. The playground bullying he endures – his lunch stolen, his precious calls home interrupted – strips him of his dignity, hour by hour. 

Stephen Graham is right when he calls the series “difficult to watch,” but it’s also a must-see, both as a lesson on the British prison system, and a masterclass in acting.

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Time starts on BBC One on Sunday 6th June at 9pm. While you’re waiting, take a look at our other Drama coverage, or find out what else is on with our TV Guide.