Named Best Miniseries at the 2022 BAFTAs, the hard-hitting BBC prison drama Time is now available to binge on Showmax. Time earned Sean Bean (Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings) his second BAFTA as Lead Actor earlier this year, with his co-star Stephen Graham (Line of Duty, Boardwalk Empire) nominated for Supporting Actor and Lewis Arnold (Broadchurch) for Director.
There’s a built-in tension to any series starring Sean Bean – we fear for his character, given that the actor has died on screen more than 20 times. That fear isn’t helped, either, by the actor’s penchant for playing particularly sympathetic characters we’d rather not see killed off. And here he is, in peril again, making us uncomfortable, again.
Time sees Sean cast as mild-mannered former teacher Mark Cobden, newly imprisoned and confronting the harsh realities of prison life. Stephen is dedicated prison officer Eric McNally, who faces an impossible choice when one of the most dangerous inmates identifies his weakness.
The four-part miniseries isn’t the pair’s first outing together, nor is it their first time around the block with four-time BAFTA winner Jimmy McGovern, Time’s creator. Sean was nominated for a BAFTA for Jimmy’s 2017 series Broken, where he starred as a Catholic priest, and won for his role as a cross-dresser in Jimmy’s acclaimed 2012 drama, Accused, where Stephen played his conflicted partner.
Jimmy says Time’s two lead roles were written with Sean and Stephen in mind. “These two guys have played really hard men,” he says, “but they’re at their best when they’re not hard, when they’re vulnerable. They are brilliant actors full stop, but when they’re vulnerable, they are even more brilliant.”
The critics agree. Time has an 8.2/10 rating on IMDb, and a rare 100% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the critics’ consensus says, “Strong writing and a magnificent performance from Sean Bean make for an incredible, thought-provoking watch.”
“The performances of Bean and Graham are – even though we have come to expect brilliance from them both – astonishing,” The Guardian said in their 5/5-star review.
It’s not just the critics giving the show their stamp of approval either. Time has been widely praised for its realism by people who’ve experienced the system from the inside, from retired prison officers to former inmates. “I’ve got a mate who was in prison,” Stephen says, “who… went, ‘Mate, you’s have smashed it; it’s exactly what it’s like in there’.”
“From about 1982 onwards,” Jimmy says, “I did a fair bit of work in prisons… doing the writer’s workshops. And I was always fascinated by it for all kinds of reasons, but I think the main reason is, I always felt ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. Because I was young and skint once as well, and I did a few naughty things, but I was extremely lucky. I’m always looking for stories, and the thing about a British prison is it’s full of stories.”
“There but for the grace of God” is an oft-repeated phrase among the cast and crew. Central to the show, Stephen says, is the question, “What would we do when we’re faced with our own moral compass?”
Praising the show’s “devastating story-telling and striking direction,” Evening Standard says, “It’s both deeply damning and touchingly hopeful, at once a searing indictment of a system where for the most part, as one of Mark’s cellmates puts it, ‘You come in bad and you go out worse’, and a testament to our capacity to change… Essential viewing.”
The BBC announced in March that Time has been renewed for a second season, to be set in a women’s prison with an all-new cast.
So… does Sean Bean survive doing Time? You’ll have to watch it and see.