Photograph: BBC
Rating 8.9
Streamer BBC iPlayer
Seasons 1
Episodes 3 x 60 mins

Warning: this isn’t bed time viewing. Unless of course an hour of anxiety inducing, claustrophobic, violent telly is your idea of a warm cup of Horlicks.

In this new series from Jimmy McGovern we’re inside HMP Craigmore, where former teacher Mark Cobden – played by the fantastic Sean Bean – has been sent to serve Time after killing a cyclist whilst driving under the influence. On arriving at what will be his home for the next four years, Mark soon realises, thanks to the violent screaming match going on in a neighbouring cell, that he is entering an entirely new world, where he will have to unlearn everything he knows about order and justice. His story is paired with that of Eric McNally (Line of Duty’s Stephen Graham), who has been a dedicated prison officer for two decades, and whose son David is serving a sentence at another prison. McNally is threatened that David will come to danger if he doesn’t start conspiring with an inmate named Jackson Jones (Brian McCardie), and though he tries to resist, once David is beaten up McNally is thrown into a dilemma between his own morals and wanting to protect his son.

Love a little Sean Bean action? It’s time to (re)watch Game of Thrones

Though a brilliant watch, this is markedly grim. Craigmore is a brutal place, and far removed from the ones you see on Channel 5 documentaries, where every room has a PlayStation and inmates sit about chatting all day. So, it might work as a good deterrent for anyone thinking of dabbling in a bit of petty crime. We meet many inmates over the three episodes, watching as families visit and stories are revealed, many of them making clear points about the effectiveness of the system, and in particular how it treats those suffering from mental illness. And throughout the three episodes, we are left with big questions on what justice looks like, and whether this is the best way to deter criminals from committing further crimes.

This moral musing is the perfect setting for an incredibly pared-back performance from Bean. He is utterly convincing as the guilt-ridden Mark, whose crime we learn of through flashbacks and nightmares. And alongside Graham, who is compelling as the internally tortured McNally, there is some fine British acting on display here. If you can cope with the bleak premise, this series is absolutely worth a watch – just maybe not all at once.

Stephen Graham also dabbles in corruption in another BBC hit, Line of Duty

The critics have got all the Time in the world for this series, giving it nothing but good press. In The Telegraph, Anita Singh says in Time, “we get to watch two actors at the very top of their game,” though she admits she “watched the whole thing in a state of high anxiety.” The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan offered a full five stars, saying that though much of it is “inescapably harrowing,” it’s “carefully calibrated not to descend into abject despair and give us an excuse to look away. There are enough points of light to keep you from feeling alone in the darkness.” And The Times’s Carol Midgley agrees “this is heavy-duty stuff…. It is also compelling television, though, with a premium cast and written like a punch to the face. In a good way.”

First shown June 2021. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.

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