The ex-Doctor puts in a brilliant performance alongside Bella Ramsey, as a jailed mum who isn’t allowed enough phone calls to get her kids looked after. It’s a powerful message
Catastrophe … Jodie Whittaker in series two of Time.
Jimmy McGovern’s 2021 prison drama Time won plaudits by the bucketful. It starred Sean Bean as an inmate navigating the penal system and his conscience, and Stephen Graham as a decent warder being blackmailed by prisoners who knew his son was serving a sentence elsewhere. The series bagged Baftas for best actor (Bean) and best miniseries that year. It was McGovern at his best, his political viewpoint on show, but – bar a few tiny descents into agitprop – pressed into the service of a story about guilt, redemption and the flawed institutions and systems that comprise our approach to justice and prisons.
Now, in this second series, McGovern has recruited a co-writer, Helen Black, and turned his attention to the women’s estate. This time we follow three inmates and their relationships with one another, rather than with the warders. Each is a little too clearly designed as a vehicle for a particular set of problems created, aggravated or failed by their time in prison, but the essentially fine and compassionate writing – plus three sterling performances – generally prevents this from hobbling the story. Siobhan Finneran returns as chaplain Marie-Louise, her faith still moving her to try and make a dent in the mountain of troubles facing her charges, though you can often see the quiet resignation to their fates in her eyes.
Of the main three newcomers, there is Orla (Jodie Whittaker), who we first see rushing her three children through breakfast and off to school so that – unbeknown to anyone – she can make her court appearance after being charged with fiddling her electricity meter. She is taken straight from the courtroom to start a six-month sentence. It seems like Kafkaesque idiocy because it is. There is no one to pick her kids up and the rules don’t allow enough phone calls for her to sort out the kind of childcare snafu every mother has experienced – but multiplied by a million. And from this tiny acorn of petty bureaucracy a mighty oak of catastrophe will grow.
Travelling in the van that will take them all to a prison 60 miles from their homes is 19-year-old prison veteran and heroin addict Kelsey (Bella Ramsey – born in Nottingham, for those of you who missed their native accent in Game of Thrones and wondered what the American actor from The Last of Us was doing here). There are no cavity searches in women’s prisons without reasonable suspicion, so Kelsey is able to carry on using for a few days before returning to methadone. When she discovers she is pregnant, by dealer boyfriend Adam, Kelsey abandons the idea of an abortion when lifer Abi (Tamara Lawrance) informs her that sentencing judges generally go easier when you’re pregnant. The growing foetus provides her with a reason for getting clean, as well as the chance of a place on the mother and baby unit.
Abi’s is the only violent crime, and she is the closest equivalent to Bean’s character in the first series – another unusually middle-class prisoner, coping with a doubly alien world as she struggles with her guilt, the impossibility of redemption and her own extraordinary grief.
She becomes a pariah once the truth of her story is known but – as she points out in a couple of slightly unconvincingly ex-cathedra-ish speeches – she is at least partly the scapegoat for each woman’s own guilt and failings. Black doesn’t deal in simple goodies and simple baddies any more than McGovern did.
The oppressive environment and physical threat that lurked everywhere in the men’s prison first Time round are (largely) replaced here by the mental suffering created by the very different positions of women in society and the ramifications for the families they are taken from. Unsupported mothers (Orla is single, her mother an unsafe alcoholic) lose their children to foster care. Homes and jobs – which already paid barely enough to survive on and often led to the crimes in the first place – are lost. Relationships and pregnancies with bad men create a web of extra complications. McGovern and Black do not make their main or supporting characters out to be saints, but they do give full emphasis to the known fact that most women are imprisoned for low-level, non-violent crimes such as Orla’s – the kind that often wouldn’t get a man incarcerated – or as a result of being forced into illegalities by the men who control them.
With three characters to attend to, it does feel as if the writers’ attention is being stretched too thinly as they try to cover slightly too much ground, from how you deal with an unexpected period in a cell without sanitary towels to the intergenerational effects of abuse and neglect. But, like the first series, it brings attention to a terrible problem and demands a search for answers.