Time (4 stars)


No-holds barred portrayal of prison life from Jimmy McGovern with a powerhouse acting duo at its centre

Prison dramas are never ideal for the faint of heart. All that pent-up rage and simmering frustration confined to a claustrophobic space where power games are continually being fought always leads to outbursts of ugly violence. If you thought a three-part affair from Jimmy McGovern set within the walls of a men's jail was ever likely to soft-pedal on despair and anger, then you probably haven't been paying attention to his long career. Confronting the dark side of life while holding out hope that there's good in all of us has been apparent in pretty much everything he has written, and Time features a constant conflict between those two aspects.

Sean Bean plays former schoolteacher Mark Cobden, a good man who has done a very bad thing, and gets four years for his trouble. While imprisoned, he tries to keep his head down, but this only serves to make him more of a target for bullies. Does Cobden try to maintain a quiet dignity or will he be forced to fight back in order to get them off his back? Meanwhile, Stephen Graham is Eric McNally, a firm but fair prison officer who has built a reputation that is respected by the inmates (he's routinely referred to as 'Boss'), but his work and family life clash in a way that threatens his previously impeachable status.

While much attention will fall on the powerhouse acting duo of Bean and Graham, they are ably supported by Siobhan Finneran as a Catholic chaplain who offers the lapsed Cobden vital support, James Nelson-Joyce as Cobden's chief tormentor, and Brian McCardie as the kingpin who can make life inside tolerable for vulnerable prisoners though inevitably that always comes at a price.

Those who struggle with prison violence should be warned that there is at least one horrendous incident per episode, and at times the drama doesn't appear to say a great deal more than 'prisons are not great places.' But its final episode distils Time's overarching themes of guilt, forgiveness, redemption, and yes, hope, into making this yet another fine achievement in Jimmy McGovern's stellar TV career.

BBC One, Sunday 6 June, 9pm; all episodes available on BBC iPlayer after episode one has aired.