BBC’s Time beat It’s A Sin at the Baftas – this is why the prison drama deserves the praise

BBC One’s Time picked up two Bafta TV Awards at this year’s ceremony. The wins are just recognition of why the drama is such a standout series, according to one Stylist writer. 

In the world of TV, it’s only natural that some series are going to slip under the radar. So many stellar shows and not enough time, right?

One series that may have gone largely unnoticed on iPlayer – or maybe it’s been relegated to your future watchlist – but is now receiving the recognition it deserves is BBC One’s Time.

While much of the conversation around the Bafta TV Awards currently revolves around the snub of Channel 4’s It’s A Sin, it’s worth noting that the series that did pick up the award for best miniseries deserved the win on its own merit.

Sean Bean also picked up the Bafta TV award for best leading actor in the series, and truthfully, Time is the gritty prison drama that we didn’t expect to love as much as we did. It remains one of the best dramas of the past year and has since been renewed for a second season – but what makes it special? 

Sean Bean won the 2022 Bafta TV Award for Leading Actor in BBC One’s Time.

The drama already won us over with its main protagonists of Sean Bean and Stephen Graham, but paired with a plotline that keeps you guessing, insurmountable scenes of tension and raw emotion running through the three-episode series, we have a truly standout series on our hands.

On the face of it, the premise of the show is simple – it shows the inner workings and life of prison from two different sides. We follow Mark Cobden (Sean Bean), a sympathy-inducing husband, teacher and father who kills a man after drink-driving. Consumed by guilt, he has to face the dark realities of prison life. The prison officer in charge, Eric McNally (Stephen Graham), has a strong moral compass and relatability that the inmates admire – until he has to engage with corruption in order to save his own son.

It’s this dual perspective on a subject matter so bleak that sets this prison drama apart from others in the genre. It’s not glossy and doesn’t strive to be. It’s not fast-paced and never strikes you as trying to be action-packed. But the minutes of the series whizz by, leaving you holding your breath in anticipation over what’s to come next. The sense of threat always closely looms but the series also gives a voice to a prison population that is often forgotten in these dramatic narratives. 

Stephen Graham stars in BBC One’s Time as prison officer in charge, Eric McNally.

Since it first aired last year, reviews of the series have been glowing, not least because former prison inmates and officers have commented on how realistic it is. One former HMP inmate shared on The Guardian that “there is nothing in the show that I have not seen first-hand during my time inside”. Former prisoner Mike Boateng also told the BBC that the prison drama is “spot on” with its depiction of violence and prison life. 

More than anything, Time is underpinned by the dilemma of what makes a person ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Does committing a crime make you an inherently ‘bad’ person or does it just mean that you’re a good person who’s done a bad thing? We think of Eric as obviously good because of his job role but quickly realise that his own well-meaning nature and love of his family has gotten him into the worst scenario possible for a prison officer.

As well as this moral conversation, the three episodes are full of poignant moments that reflect the reality of UK prisons. It’s no-frills and the violence (and bloody scenes) come so unexpectedly, you may actually have to pause the show. And trust us, we did. 

In one graphic scene, Mark’s inmate Bernard (Aneurin Barnard) self-harms and later commits suicide via an overdose. That first episode is a brutal hour of television but underlines a reality that isn’t spoken about on mainstream television: mental health in the prison system. Eric admits to Bernard’s family that “half the men in this place” are so mentally unwell that they should be in hospital and not a prison “but there’s no room for them”.

Admittedly, I didn’t know if I’d be able to get through all three episodes: it’ll leave your heart racing, mind whirring about the penal system and, in my case, in a steady flow of sympathetic tears. 

Everything about Time is harrowing but a good show is one that should leave a lasting impression on everyone who watches it. No miniseries has stayed with me longer than Time, and that in itself is a testament to how deserved the series’ Bafta win is.

Time is available to watch on BBC iPlayer. 

Images: BBC

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