YOU’RE here as punishment, not for punishment.

Those were the words spoken by Warrington's own Sue Johnston when she played the mum of prisoner Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) in Jimmy McGovern's much talked about BBC drama, Time.

The phrase stuck out straight away – 'as punishment', 'for punishment' – do they not essentially mean the same thing?

It made my head spin but made more sense the more I thought about it and it has continued to resonate with me long after finishing the three-part series.

What I took from it is that you go to prison to pay for a crime, to serve your time, to reflect on what you have done, to rehabilitate, to earn a second chance.

It is not a place where you go for torment, abuse or worse.

That, of course, is oversimplifying it but what I admired about McGovern's work – which he says is always set in 'approximately Warrington' – is that it was thought provoking.

Most prison dramas pride themselves on being hard-hitting and gritty – presenting an unyielding world of hurt and misery – but Time is essentially about two good hearted people navigating a brutal environment the best they can.

Sean Bean plays newly incarcerated Mark Cobden, a former teacher who has lost his job and his wife due to a terrible mistake and is ill-equipped for the harsh realities of prison life.

We gradually discover he is a drink driver who is consumed by guilt after killing a man in an accident.



Mark has handed himself in, faced up to his crime and welcomes his four-year sentence in an attempt to atone, with most of his family standing by him.

He is taken under the wing of jail officer Eric McNally, played by Line Of Duty's Stephen Graham, who wants to do right by those under his charge.

But as Mark adjusts to an unfamiliar and dangerous environment, firm but fair Eric faces an impossible choice between his principles and his love for his family when one of the most dangerous inmates identifies his weakness.

Bean is outstanding as a principled man and fish out of water who is truly haunted by his crime and has little hope of making amends. You instantly root for him and it feels like you go on that journey of redemption with him.

We see him harden to prison life but also see the butterfly effect of his small acts of kindness – they are as powerful on screen as any of the nerve-shredding moments and there are little glimmers of hope like that throughout the series.

The contrast of Mark's experiences literally fighting for his life – or the lives of others – in prison with the dignified calm of him addressing people through the prison's chaplaincy services and at a conference about crime and rehabilitation will also stay with you.

But the best – or should I say the most heartbreaking – is saved for last where McGovern explores the strength of family bonds to devastating effect – and the staggering power of reconciliation and forgiveness.



I would go as far to say this is Bean's finest work. Graham, too, is fantastic with their characters' two stories co-existing but never really colliding.

Time is well paced and always tense and although some parts of the story – particularly Eric's – do not come across as entirely realistic, it is incredibly moving in showing the impact of prison on those who live and work within it.

It will make you question things and there is no doubt that McGovern's drama is politically charged.

At one point an emotionally wrought Eric says: "They should all be in mental hospitals, not in this nick. But there's no room for them, so they stay here and we do the best we can."

Many will have a thing or two to say about that but most will agree that there is a debate to be had on everything from how prisons are run and how fit for purpose they are to mental health issues and giving people the tools they need to rehabilitate.

It might make you think twice next time you want to say: 'Lock them up and throw away the key'.

Time has just finished airing on BBC One. The series is available to watch on demand on iPlayer.