They say that time waits for no man, or, in the case of the second series of this BBC One drama, no woman. Jimmy McGovern’s bleak saga is back, this time turning the lens to the hard knocks of a women’s prison where, rather than slipping away from them, time drags on interminably. Against this painfully glacial clock, Time tells interweaving stories of life behind bars.
This new series follows three women: Jodie Whittaker’s Orla, Bella Ramsey’s Kelsey and Tamara Lawrance’s Abi. Orla is a small-time criminal, banged up for “fiddling the leccy” (ie tampering with her electricity meter readings), who is preoccupied by fears of losing custody of her kids. Kelsey, a young heroin addict, discovers on arrival that she’s pregnant. And Abi is a lifer, in for a crime that still haunts her. Time means different things to each of these women. For Orla, it is all precious minutes away from her young family – an estrangement that threatens any chance of reunion – while for Kelsey there are two countdowns running simultaneously. But for Abi, it means little. “I am doing life,” she warns a new inmate who is threatening to expose her identity. “A few more years means nothing to me.”
Prisons live rent-free (or should that be at His Majesty’s pleasure?) in Britain’s creative psyche. From sitcoms such as Porridge and soap operas like Bad Girls to a new slate of modern dramas, Channel 4’s Screw and Time on the BBC (the first series of which starred Sean Bean and Stephen Graham), the prison is a controllable microcosm yet an emotional crucible. In this second series of McGovern’s drama, we have a whirlwind of traumas. Guilt, separation, bereavement, anxiety: all things running wild in society, accelerated in the confines of a prison. These women – “These beaten and abused and s***-upon women”, as Abi labels them – have nothing but time. Time to be unhappy, sure. Time to be unpleasant, certainly. But time, also, to reach some sort of catharsis.
When you insist upon trauma, you run the risk of exploiting fiction as a mechanism for concentrating abuse, like simmering stock down to a sticky gloop. And cliché does infect Time. “All you did was try to keep your kids warm!” Orla’s mother exclaims. Meanwhile, a caring nun (played by a returning Siobhan Finneran, of course) implores Abi to open up about her horrific backstory. “If you told your story truthfully,” she begs Abi, who has been demonised and ostracised by the prison community, “the women might understand.” Even Kelsey, faced with a difficult pregnancy, cleans up her act and gets off the methadone. In reinforcing the truth that perpetrators of crime are all too frequently victims of broader structural injustices, there is a danger of creating a two-tier system. Bad convicts, who move like shadows in the background, and good convicts, whose stories we learn.
This is quite a hard square to circle. Some prison dramas, such as Orange is the New Black, have used an ensemble cast to introduce shades of grey (though the desire to elicit sympathy usually wins out). With Time there are just three stories, each relatable in their own way. Whittaker is well established now as the country’s everywoman, and Orla is another instalment in this canon. Lawrance, meanwhile (best known, perhaps, from starring opposite Letitia Wright in last year’s The Silent Twins), has a quietly tender manner that allows Abi to displace the most heinous accusations. But it is really Ramsey who steals the show. After starring turns as precocious kids in Game of Thrones and The Last of Us, their casting as a hard-bitten addict could easily have been a misstep. Instead, it is a confident performance that exploits that childlike vulnerability, and feels like the moment they break into the mainstream.
Screenwriter McGovern’s drama might be too conventional, too predictable, for real excellence. But this portrait of women on the edge, battling systems outside of their control, is tight, tense, and compassionate. Time, ultimately, is on their side.