A British Prison Drama Shows the Pressure Society Puts on Mothers | Sojourners

A British Prison Drama Shows the Pressure Society Puts on Mothers

'Time,' BBC One, Sally Mais

Veteran British screenwriter Jimmy McGovern has made a career of telling stories of people living in urban poverty. His 2017 six-part series Broken starred Sean Bean as a Catholic priest in a hardscrabble North English community where people grapple with gambling addictions, job loss, and mental health issues. Four years later, his series Time followed a group of men in prison. The second (stand-alone) season, now available on BritBox, focuses on three women in a minimum-security prison.

For McGovern, these stories come from a personal place. “I know what it’s like to stand in that betting shop, having lost all your money and having to go home to the wife and kids and tell them you lost it,” he told me in a Zoom interview when season one of Time was released. “In the case of prisoners, I always say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”

That self-awareness and empathy plays across every scene of the new season of Time, which McGovern co-wrote with Helen Black, a former lawyer whose work focused on children who are taken into the child welfare system. The series, which stars Jodie Whittaker (Doctor Who), Bella Ramsey (The Last of Us), and Tamara Lawrance (Kindred), uses the setting of the prison as a vehicle for exploring the immense pressures that society places upon women, particularly mothers.

Whittaker’s Orla is a single mother of three who is arrested for tampering with her electricity meter, a measure she undertook because she didn’t have enough money to pay her bill. Instead of being arraigned and released, Orla is shocked to find herself thrown into prison for six months with no one but her unwell mother to care for her children. Almost immediately they’re put into foster care, while Orla can do nothing but serve out her sentence. 

Meanwhile Ramsey’s Kelsey struggles with drug addiction and is used to playing the system. When she discovers in prison that she’s pregnant, she chooses to keep the baby, thinking it’ll make her sentence easier. But then pregnancy ends up transforming her thoughts about her life.

One of the great imperatives of Time (and many of McGovern’s shows) is that every person is a human being worthy of attention and respect, no matter what they have done or where they come from. And McGovern and Black have an abiding belief that if you spend time with people you have written off, their lives will challenge and change you. So Lawrance’s Abi is scorned by her fellow inmates after they discover that she is in prison for having killed her baby. But when she finally reveals what happened, her story proves all too familiar to them — the men in their lives ignoring and mistreating them, the system providing no support and undermining her.

In a sense, that’s the other lesson of this season of Time: No matter who people might have on their side, the broader legal system is often relentless in its willingness to strip women of their children, their hope, and their humanity. That applies to the incarcerated people, but also to the female guards, social workers, and the chaplain who work with them. Prison Officer Martin (Lisa Millett) acts as both counselor and advocate for the incarcerated women; because she is around them the most, she understands most deeply what is actually going on with them. Sometimes she can help; other times she is left to simply watch as the system collapses in upon their charges.

While people in prison are often depicted as feral, in Time, the ferocity of those in the unit is mostly shown through the fierce care they show for one another, the ways that they step up at various times to support each other. Over the course of the three-part series, it’s abundantly clear that every woman we meet, whether in jail or running it, knows exactly what they’re all up against, particularly as mothers. And in the end, they all understand, they can only rely upon each other for help.

Each season of Time has focused on a different prison and set of characters, with the nun who works as chaplain serving as the only recurring character. As played by the great Siobhan Finneran, Marie-Louise is luminescent — knowing and world-wise, but gentle. “Tell your story,” Marie-Louise invites Abi again and again. And her recommendation is not just about what it will do for Abi but for everyone else, including the audience. In the end, the “time" of the show’s title is not simply a reference to the characters “doing time” in prison, but a description of what this show offers each of us: time in which the stony parts of our own hearts can be broken open by the stories of others. Within those stories, we might discover unexpected reservoirs of kinship and love. There but for the grace of God go all of us.