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Time ticks all the usual prison drama boxes – but adds in remorse

Jimmy McGovern’s new drama portrays alcoholism so honestly it’s scary, says Sam Delaney. It’s about time.

Time is a prison drama written by Jimmy McGovern, starring Sean Bean and Stephen Graham. I didn’t need much convincing to watch it beyond those fundamentals. The trailer confirmed my assumptions about it: violence, drugs, terror, misery. People getting done over with snooker balls in a sock. Grasses having boiling water chucked in their face. Graham as a quietly menacing screw. Bean as a hardman con. “Lovely stuff,” I thought, “count me in.” It might be prison drama by numbers but those are the sort of numbers I can really get behind.

It turns out all of my assumptions were wrong. Well, most of them anyway. OK, there is a bit of violence involving snooker balls. Someone does get boiling water chucked in their face. The tropes and clichés exist because they are grounded in truth. But everything else about this excellent show confounded expectations. Bean plays against type as a timid, middle-class teacher who is thrust into a hellish four-year sentence after killing a man while drunk-driving. Graham plays a firm but fair screw – not quite Barraclough out of Porridge but certainly a more benign presence than Mr Mackay.

McGovern swerves most of the easy wins of what you might call ‘prison porn’. There are explosive moments, yes, but the prevailing atmosphere is downbeat and reflective. He digs into guilt and remorse with a humanity and intelligence that is all too rare. Mostly, criminals are portrayed as psychos and animals; sexy bad guys with tattoos and muscles, stabbing people with sharpened toothbrushes in the exercise yard. There is none of that here.

Sean Bean delivers a nuanced performance as a man whose worst nightmares have all come true, struggling to maintain his sanity and wrestle with the emotional consequences of his crime.

This was the sort of alcoholism that I fell into in my late 30s

We see flashbacks of his low-key alcoholism. A family man with good intentions who has fallen into the discreet, mundane sort of disease that is so common in real life but so under-portrayed in dramas that prefer to show the more overt versions of addiction. His seemingly harmless, seemingly manageable brand of everyday dad-drinking suddenly and subtly pushes him into a moment of madness and tragedy that wrecks his life forever.

This was the sort of alcoholism that I fell into in my late 30s. There was none of the sleeping on park benches, soiling the bed sheets or fighting with strangers that we are often told are the hallmarks of a proper booze problem. Mine was the dreary, solitary brand of alcoholism: I was the pisshead getting quietly drunk every night in the corner of the pub before going home to put the kids to bed. Before I knew it I was the dickhead secretly mixing vodka with orange juice before 9am to kickstart my working day. It crept up on me with a clinical stealth and almost wrecked my life completely.

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I haven’t had a drink in almost six years and, these days, rarely reflect on how bad things got. But it’s important that I do. Time was a chilling reminder of what might have been had I not got my act together when I did. I found it emotionally exhausting to watch: like a portal into what could have ended up being my own reality.

Incremental suburban piss-headery is a scourge: portraying its potential consequences with such brutal realism is a triumph.

Time is available on iPlayer

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