Writer says there are ‘huge elements’ of himself in ‘Time’ lead character

By Mark Pattison | Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Jimmy McGovern, who’s been writing television for British audiences for 40 years, said there are “huge elements” of himself in the lead character of his new miniseries “Time.”

One similarity that doesn’t go too far: Both McGovern and Mark Cobden, the lead character played by veteran U.K. actor Sean Bean, are lapsed Catholics. But Cobden’s faith returns in the least likely of places: prison.

“The last time I believed was 13 or 14,” said McGovern in an Aug. 16 phone interview with Catholic News Service from his home in Liverpool, England. “I’ve never believed ever since then, even though I’ve been open to faith returning. It just hasn’t happened.”

The other similarity between the two? “The drinking, because I used to be heavy drinker but not now,” McGovern said. It was Cobden’s drinking that got him put in prison in the first place, as “Time” refers to what he and the other inmates are doing behind bars.

But no matter where McGovern’s own religious beliefs stand, there is a Catholic storyline in “Time” — a character who is a religious sister plays a pivotal role.

Mark Cobden stars in a scene from BBC’s miniseries “Time.” (CNS photo/James Stack, BBC Studios)

The first installment of the three-hour miniseries debuts Aug. 17 on BritBox, a streaming service of British TV and films both old and new, with the two other episodes available on subsequent Tuesdays.

“Time” was received well in England, according to McGovern. “Very, very good indeed. I don’t think the BBC were expecting it, to tell you the truth. … It touched a nerve. It was pretty optimistic. It proves the British people are interested in how people are in prison. They’re not locked away and forgotten,” he said. “It’s a myth — lock ’em up and throw away the key.”

Much of Cobden’s return to belief — and the desire to become a good person once again — is unlocked by Sister Marie-Louise (Siobhan Finneran), the prison chaplain. She invites him to take part in group discussions with other inmates in the prison chapel. Unlike the prison guards who open a door slot to see what’s going on before heading into the cell, Sister Marie-Louise simply unlocks the cell door and walks in unannounced.

Twice the age of the typical prisoner, Cobden begins mentoring them in small yet effective ways, including being one inmate’s support as he goes to a restorative justice session to meet with the parents of the man he fatally stabbed. With COVID-19 restrictions in England, McGovern said, restorative justice and small-group sessions are on hold.

“Ever since I was a writer I’d been going into British prisons, doing writer’s workshops” in the 1980s and ’90s, McGovern told CNS. “Then it dried up. Our prisons have changed for the worse. But I always maintained an interest in prisons.”

McGovern said he was fascinated by one former prisoner’s “no-holds-barred account of a British prison” and sought to adapt it for TV. But to his surprise, the prisoner said he did not want to profit any further from his time in prison. “But I’d started researching prisons by that point” and kept at it after the unexpected turndown from the ex-inmate.

Every prisoner in “Time” has been convicted of some offense, but perhaps the most guilty among them is Jackson Jones (Brian McCardie), who fixes problems in prison in exchange for later “you-owe-me-one” favors that ensnare the recipient of the original favor in his web.

“He’s built his empire on fear and tyranny. He is probably the most powerful prisoner in that prison. He is also the weakest,” McGovern said. “When he realizes that meek, mild prisoner (Cobden) has defied him, he has no other choice but to attack him.”

“I think he’s straight out of Orwell,” McGovern said of the Jackson Jones character. “Orwell tells a story, ‘Shooting an Elephant,’ which is set in the day when he served in Burma, in the Burmese police. He gets a call that an elephant has run amok, and he’s taken his gun and the Burmese people follow him. And he gets to the elephant, and the elephant is back to being peaceful, but he must shoot the elephant because the Burmese people expect it.”

McGovern said the BBC asked him to do a second series of “Time,” but ” I think I’ve said all the things I want to say” on prison.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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