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Forgiveness and duty collide in Time


Prisons are settings to which TV and film writers return regularly. It’s because ‘the joint’ gives them an environment in which they can enact the dramatic principle of the crucible easily: tension between duelling inmate protagonists and antagonists is heightened quickly to boiling point because no one can simply walk away.

Sometimes, however, that’s all writers do – establish some inmates in conflict and watch them sizzle under pressure. The BBC’s three-part series Time (2021), soon to screen in a second series set in a women’s prison, goes much deeper. In a gut-wrenching, moving portrait of forgiveness and duty, characters played by two of the UK’s finest contemporary actors – Sean Bean and Stephen Graham – face off against separate antagonists while wrestling with even stronger demons within.

Mark (Sean Bean) is an ‘every person’, in as much as he is like anyone else living with an addiction. It’s just that this former school teacher’s addiction to alcohol sees him commit a crime accidentally. Ill-equipped for his four-year-sentence, Mark’s an easy target for con artists and violent bullies. But they’re no match for the guilt that’s chewing his soul to shreds.

Eric (Stephen Graham) is recognised as an excellent prison officer. Tough but fair, he treats prisoners with respect and tries to protect Mark. Eric’s moral compass is, however, set spinning when his son lands in jail. Eric becomes beholden to inmates who use him for their own ends, offering shallow promises to protect his boy from the violence coming his way for being the son of a screw.

Mark is essentially a good man who has misused alcohol to manage his grief, but it’s led, for him and others, to more grief than he could have imagined. But he turns his life around by accepting opportunities to live for others. Despite his protestations that he’s no good for the job, the prison’s female chaplain, Marie-Louise (Siobhan Finneran), convinces Mark to join her group aiming to keep wayward youth out of the slammer.


'The conflicts and relationships between prisoners, families, and wardens would be satisfying enough without the depth of character the writer and director achieve.' 


Mark and Marie-Louise’s relationship is refreshing. There’s no romance; it’s platonic and centred on deep issues of forgiveness and grace. And Marie-Louise is a character becoming rarer on contemporary screens: an honourable religious character.

When Mark’s moment of testing comes during compassionate release to attend his father’s funeral, he refuses to go back to his old ways, despite death threats. He learns to forgive himself and, Time’s ending suggests, he may even gain forgiveness from those whose life he’s nearly destroyed. Mark’s is a harrowing journey; his soul in shreds is knitted back together but scarred through hard-won renewal.

As if all that weren’t wrenching enough, Eric’s journey, interwoven with Mark’s, sees him put in a situation where everything he believes in comes undone due to a clash of duties – to his profession and family. Out of love for his son, Eric becomes a criminal in order to take upon himself his son’s suffering. In the end – and despite the horror we see coming for Eric – it’s hard to imagine anyone handling his situation differently. Eric’s is a love pushed to a biblical extreme, of suffering taken upon oneself to protect another.

Time is a prison drama with many crucibles and it’s difficult but rewarding viewing. The conflicts and relationships between prisoners, families, and wardens would be satisfying enough without the depth of character the writer and director achieve. But with its characters’ moral complexity – and its supercharged acting performances – Time is unmissable.


Time is returning for Season 2 in 2023. Stream Time on ABV iView here.  



Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne writer and his latest book is Matters of Life and Faith (Coventry Press, 2021)

Main image: Still of Sean Bean and Stephen Graham in Time (BBCTV 2021)

Topic tags: Paul Mitchell, Time, BBCTV, Drama, Sean Bean



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