In Time, Jimmy McGovern’s outstanding new BBC prison drama, Stephen Graham shows, yet again, that he is one of Britain’s truly great actors
Who would have thought that Jason Statham’s sidekick in Guy Ritchie’s second gangster movie, Snatch (2000) – the permanently puzzled Tommy, always a couple of steps behind his friend, Turkish – would become, within two decades, an actor celebrated around the world, with an authentic claim to be the UK’s finest screen performer? Such is the greatness of Stephen Graham.
On Sunday, he returns in Jimmy McGovern’s excellent new three-part prison drama, Time (BBC One, 9pm, all episodes available on iPlayer), playing Eric McNally, an officer with an impeccable record, who suddenly finds himself on the horns of an appalling moral dilemma.
McGovern – best-known, perhaps, for the groundbreaking Nineties crime series, Cracker – has always been at home in the ethical marchlands that divide law and order from law-breaking, and Time relishes the foggy confusions of that terrain.
Eric plays by the rules, and is known for his fairness by inmates and colleagues alike. But a sense of futility lurks beneath the calm exterior. “They should all be in mental hospitals, not in this nick,” he tells the bereaved mother of a prisoner who has taken his life. “But there’s no room for them. So they stay here, and we do the best we can. Honestly, we do the very best we can for them. And often, that’s not good enough.”
In this respect, Time is a step up – or down, strictly speaking – from the normal prison drama, in which confinement is generally little more than a framing device to set the stage for claustrophobic storylines, emotional arcs, and sentimental journeys of redemption.
There are no Shawshank moments here, no busy plotlines of the sort that made Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black so watchable, none of the surrealism that curled through HBO’s Oz or (most famously) The Prisoner. McGovern successfully captures the sheer tawdriness of life inside: the camera lingers on the grey walls, the shabby work uniforms, the mind-bending tedium permanently stained by menace and the threat of violence. In this respect, Time bears comparison with the Ray Winstone borstal classic, Scum (1979).
The second acting pillar of the series is Sean Bean, who plays Mark Cobden, a former teacher who has none of the cunning and criminal experience required to make it through his sentence unscathed. Bean’s craggy features – so often the basis of heroic roles, not least in Game of Thrones – are here a study in frozen fear, guilt and introspection.
Yet – with great respect to Bean – this is Graham’s show. Since his breakout role as the aggressively unstable skinhead Combo, in Shane Meadows’ This is England (2006, BritBox) and its sequels, he has become a familiar presence on the small screen and, increasingly, in serious cinema.
Highly selective about the work he chooses, but eclectically so, he grasped sooner than many actors that so-called “prestige television” was the future as much as film. Given the shape of his career, it was not remotely odd that he should be a one-season featured performer in the BBC’s Line of Duty in the same year (2019) that he sat opposite Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s epic, The Irishman (in his now famous scene with the two giants of his trade – which hinges on punctuality and the etiquette of meetings – he is more than equal to an acting challenge that any performer would find daunting).
As he showed in that film, as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire and – to sublime effect – in Meadows’ four-part television drama, The Virtues (All 4), Graham is perfectly capable of cutting loose as a screen presence, letting out the rage and the passion to unsettling effect. But it is the fact that he does so only sparingly that makes him so good.
With the exception of a few devastating moments of release, his face is impassive in Time, only the slight curl of the lip or twitch of the cheek hinting at the turmoil within. When he breaks, it is all the more powerful. In this respect, he is true to Alec Guinness’s dictum that, on screen, “less is always more”.
The extraordinary power of his acting resides less in the occasional explosions than in the viewer’s knowledge that he is always tracing his way through a minefield, trying to get through each day, each hour, each minute. When Graham is on screen, the man within is always a prisoner.
Our next Creative Sensemaker Live is on Friday 25 June, at 13:00 BST, and will ask: Is classical music boring and elitist? Among the speakers will be the chief executive of the English National Opera, Stuart Murphy. You can book your place here.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Awake (Netflix, 9 June)
Sleep deprivation often makes a fine premise for a movie: one thinks immediately of Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (2002), Christian Bale in The Machinist (2004) and Edward Norton’s exhausted features in the first act of Fight Club (1999). In Awake, however, sleeplessness suddenly afflicts the entire human race – and technology has failed us too. In a pretty shameless plot lift from Children of Men (2006), there is only one child who defies the global phenomenon and retains the ability to take a nap. Gina Rodriguez stars in this entertaining post-apocalyptic thriller – to be filed, without embarrassment, under “weekend watch” and “undemanding”.
The Beast Must Die (BritBox)
One of the most anticipated stage performances of the year is Cush Jumbo’s interpretation of Hamlet at the Young Vic (opens 25 September, roadmap permitting). If you can’t wait till then, try this superior drama series in which she plays a grieving mother, Frances, seeking vengeance for the death of her son in a hit-and-run on the Isle of Wight. Jared Harris is splendidly sinister as prime suspect and all-round nasty tycoon, George Rattery, while Billy Howle plays the psychologically tormented Detective Strangeways (yes, really) with all the melodrama required by the genre. But it is Jumbo who keeps you watching, her character locked in a convergence of pain, vulnerability and unexpected ruthlessness.
After Love (selected cinemas, 4 June)
Aleem Khan’s terrific feature debut follows Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) as she is plunged by the death of her ferry captain husband, Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia) into the pursuit of a secret in Calais. Who is the woman whose texts Mary finds on Ahmed’s phone? Notionally a movie about emotional betrayal, this is really a cinematic exploration of borders, identity and belonging, and the alarming ease with which a person can find herself arbitrarily unmoored.
In a past life, I was taught, as a medievalist, to think as an anthropologist might when scouring evidence from another age. In this superb book, Gillian Tett – Editor-at-Large at the Financial Times – applies the lessons of her doctorate in anthropology to the world of business and, more generally, to social behaviour and trends. “Big data can explain what’s happening,” she writes, but is only the starting-point: without the anthropologist’s dispassionate eye for cultural meaning, we cannot hope to understand what is going on, let alone what might be coming down the track. There are many reasons to read Anthro Vision, but the most compelling is its liberation of such analysis from the often phoney and banal punch-ups of today’s culture wars.
The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid – Lawrence Wright (Allen Lane, 8 June)
Like John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), Lawrence Wright’s study of the US pandemic has its roots in a New Yorker article: both are also masterpieces of narrative journalism. Wright – the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Looming Tower – is unsparing in his criticism of the Trump administration and its unforgivable failures. But this is not simply another attack upon the last US president: it is a terrible warning, expressed in the form of a profoundly human saga, of what could happen next time if the lessons of 2020 are not heeded.
You Are What You Read: A Practical Guide to Reading Well – Robert DiYanni (Princeton University Press)
Well, yes. So Harold Bloom tells us in How to Read and Why, as does Italo Calvino in Why Read the Classics? What DiYanni, a professor at New York University, brings to the table is an infectious enthusiasm that matches his erudition. This is a very practical guide book to the republic of letters, an impassioned invitation to the world of literature designed for the reader of the 2020s, endlessly distracted by the demands of the digital age. There is something for everyone in its pages.
Blue Weekend – Wolf Alice (4 June)
The London band’s third album is its best to date, better even than the Mercury Prize-winning Visions of a Life. It also strengthens Ellie Rowsell’s reputation as a songwriter capable of true poetry (“Every book you take that you dust off from the shelf/Has lines between lines between lines that you read about yourself.”). The stand-out track is ‘Delicious Things’, already one of my songs of the summer.
These exquisite recordings of the first three violin sonatas, newly-arranged by viola player, Paul Cassidy, are quite something. According to Cassidy: “[T]hese miraculous pieces are endlessly cleansing and enriching for the body and soul, a balm for the spirit. Their challenging pages abound with multi-faceted characters whose succinct purity is a wonder to behold.” Which might sound pretentious – but makes perfect sense when you hear the quartet at work.
The Course of the Inevitable – Lloyd Banks (4 June)
The former G-Unit star’s first album in a decade has naturally generated much hype. Including collaborations with Ransom, Roc Marci, Freddie Gibbs and Styles P, it even has an official countdown post on YouTube. Stunts aside, the slices that have been teased suggest that the rapper’s two decades in the spotlight have not dimmed his appetite to create energetic, provocative and lyrically satisfying music.
Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy (Whitechapel Gallery, booking until 29 August)
An unmissable retrospective of the British painter and artist – born in Argentina – whose work fused surrealism with an almost mystical belief in “womb magic” and the saving power of the feminine. One of Picasso’s many muses, Agar is better remembered for the extraordinary range of works – photography, painting, sculpture – that are assembled in the east London gallery.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Have a great week.
Editor and Partner
Photographs BBC, Netflix, BritBox, Courtesy Private Collection©Estate of Eileen Agar/BridgemanImages