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  • Emma Nash

Review of Jimmy McGovern’s ‘Time’

As soon as I heard that Jimmy McGovern had written a new drama, I knew I had to see it. His 2017 series, ‘Broken’, about a broken priest and his broken parishioners, was outstanding, and stayed with me for months. Once again, Sean Bean stars as a broken man: this time a teacher, Mark, who is beginning four years in prison. The excellent Stephen Graham also stars as a firm but fair prison guard with 22 years’ impeccable service who is faced with an impossible dilemma. This review contains some spoilers but I haven't given away too much.

Early on, when asked what he's in for, Mark explains "I killed a man." It soon becomes apparent that he is in prison for drink driving. There is no attempt to minimise Mark’s crime and its devastating effect on the lives of others as well as his own. Neither is there any attempt to hide the grim realities of doing time in an under-staffed prison where much violence goes on unseen by the prison guards. Mark is keenly aware of the gravity of his crime and is trying to do the right thing. He sees his time in prison as a form of atonement.


Now that Mark is in prison, however, he is caught up in a brutal system which does not seem to allow anyone the freedom to do the right thing, no matter how hard they try. Bullies can only be stopped with violence. Organised crime has its fingers everywhere. Protection can be bought, but there is a high price to pay. I was reminded of Brazilian feminist theologian Yvone Gebara's definition of original sin: 'a kind of net that surrounds us in the very air we breathe... a “sea” in which we move'.[1] According to Gebara, it is not simply that human beings are weak, and could choose to do right if they tried hard enough. They are caught up in societies and structures of injustice that overpower them. This is not to deny individual responsibility: Mark is certainly trying to take responsibility for the suffering he has caused. But now that he is locked up with hundreds of other angry, shamed, vulnerable men, watched over by too few guards, and with organised crime groups operating below the radar of the authorities, doing the right thing is almost impossible.


In the midst of all this depravity, however, I was struck by the compassion of McGovern’s writing. Time and again we meet men who have done terrible things, and yet we cannot dismiss them as monsters: we see their shame, their guilt, their humanity. In one powerful scene, a prisoner is granted a meeting with the parents of the man he killed in a fight. He explains what was going through his mind when it happened, and the shame he felt then and still feels is very apparent - as is the terrible grief of the murdered man's family. Another scene shows a prisoner who is 25 years into a life sentence at a parole hearing, confronted by the brother of his victim. His crime is great, but so too is his pain. And there are moments when the men’s pain is met by compassion. The prison has a restorative justice programme. The chaplain runs a group where inmates can talk about and reflect upon their crimes, without judgement. Above all, it is the way in which the men’s stories are told which left me, at the end of the final episode, full of sadness and love and grace.

[1] Ivone Gebara, Out of the Depths: Women’s experience of evil and salvation, Minneapolis, 2002, p. 56.


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