Jimmy McGovern: Sheffield's Sean Bean is 'full of compassion and humanity' in BBC prison drama Time

The writer Jimmy McGovern’s new three-part BBC drama Time, starring Stephen Graham and Yorkshire’s own Sean Bean, is packed full of grit, as Danielle de Wolfe discovers.

Sean Bean as Mark Cobden. Picture: PA Photo/BBC/James Stack.
Sean Bean as Mark Cobden. Picture: PA Photo/BBC/James Stack.

Screenwriter Jimmy McGovern is known for creating some of the grittiest shows on television.

If you’re unfamiliar with his name, chances are, you’re well aware of his work.

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From Cracker to Accused to Moving On, McGovern’s writing is raw, emotive and, at times, makes for truly uncomfortable viewing.

Stephen Graham as Eric McNally. Picture: PA Photo/BBC/James Stack.

“I’m always looking for stories,” he says, “and the thing about a British prison is, it’s full of stories.”

McGovern’s new highly-anticipated three-part BBC One drama, Time, is centred around life within the British penal system and the moral dilemmas faced by those living and working within it.

“I think, really, I’ve been working on it since the 80s,” notes the 71-year-old of its origins.

“From about ’82 onwards, I did a fair bit of work in prisons; I was always popping in there and doing writers’ workshops and popping out again.

“I was always fascinated by it; I think the main reason was I always felt ‘There but for the grace of God go I’, you know? Because I was young and skint once as well, and I did a few naughty things.”

Sheffield-born actor Sean Bean, 62, best known for his role as Ned Stark in Game Of Thrones, stars as newly incarcerated Mark Cobden, a man consumed by guilt after killing an innocent man in an accident.

Welcoming his four-year sentence as an act of penance, Bean’s character finds himself interacting with principled jail officer Eric McNally, played by Line Of Duty’s Stephen Graham.

“I had those two uppermost in my thoughts all the way through,” says McGovern, of the actors he envisaged playing the roles of Mark and Eric.

“I just think they’ve got faces you’d die for, you know? Full of life and full of compassion and humanity.

“And I think, if you’re going to write about a British prison, that’s the kind of thing you need. Compassion, humanity, experience – and all are in the lines of those faces.”

With a strong track record of setting his dramas in the North-East, “approximately Warrington” as McGovern puts it, the Liverpudlian writer says he often finds himself in a moral quandary when it comes to his city of birth. Noting the “negative stereotype” associated with Liverpool regularly poses “a major problem for Scouse writers”, McGovern says he would have worked with Graham sooner, were it not for the actor’s own northern roots. “It was a story I came across a while back in an episode of Accused,” says McGovern pensively.

“There was a part – it was a taxi driver who takes a girl to the airport and goes back and burgles her house – and it was absolutely perfect for Stephen Graham.

“I said, ‘We can’t have Stephen. We cannot have a Scouser playing the burglar because of the negative stereotype attached to the city.’

“And yet, at the same time, you want the work in the city, because these are quite highly paid jobs.

The writer says it’s a situation that is “always awkward” and leaves creators “wide open to charges of not giving Scouse actors jobs in Scouse dramas. It’s strange, because Cracker was set in Manchester,” continues McGovern. “And it was full of psychopaths, you know, real weirdos, and nobody in Manchester complained, because that doesn’t face the negative stereotype.”

Doing Time saw Graham step inside the walls of a working jail in order to learn the tricks of the trade. The actor found himself shadowing an active prison officer, absorbing the nuances of day-to-day life and honing routines as he went.

“I soaked it up like a sponge,” says Graham, 47, his excitement palpable.

“We were at the prison and I met this lovely fellow who had been a prison guard for 25 years.

“I went off with him for about two and a half hours and I came back – and you know how you want to impress your footie manager, and you come back and show him what you’ve been doing?

“I got some keys and I said ‘Come here, come here’,” he says with a grin. “And I could see he was dead excited. It was like a kid and his dad, really.”

“What he missed out at the end of that story,” interjects director Lewis Arnold, “was he actually flicked the keys up and caught them on his belt. He was showing off and it worked, and I could see him trying to do it.

“He never did it again.”

Led by Arnold, the directorial talent behind hit series Humans and Cleaning Up, Time also stars This Is England actress Hannah Walters as the prison officer’s wife.

According to the director, the on-screen couple brought an “infectious” energy to the production, noting that at times, he had to tell the pair to “hold back” when it came to particular scenes, because of the chemistry.

It’s something that makes complete sense when you discover that Walters also happens to be Graham’s off-screen partner, with Arnold noting that her decision to audition was “a bit of a risk”.

“I mean, imagine if everyone had come away from it saying ‘There’s no chemistry between them’,” laughs the director. “I remember their first scene together was in a hospital room and the pair of them were giggling away for ages until they realised the serious nature of the scene.

“They’re amazing, they just switched it on instantly, but their chemistry, it’s just infectious.”

Born in the Handsworth area of Sheffield, Bean joined his father’s firm as a welder before starting a drama course, getting a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1981 from where he graduated two years later.

The ardent Sheffield United fan rose to prominence with parts such as Mellors in the 1993 TV mini-series Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the eponymous hero Richard Sharpe in the TV adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling books set during the Napoleonic Wars – with the latter show making him a household name.

Described by the BBC as “a tense story of punishment and principles”, the first episode of Time has already aired and received acclaim from the national press, including The Guardian, which gave it five out of five stars.

The opening scenes show Bean’s character being transported to and inducted into prison, surrounded already by chaos, hostility and violence as he begins his first jail term at HMP Craigmore (scenes were filmed at the decommissioned HMP Shrewsbury).

When Time was announced in September last year, Bean said: “Getting to be involved in a Jimmy McGovern drama again is a real privilege and it will be great to be reunited with Stephen.”

He said his character was “another of Jimmy’s complex and superbly written characters and I am looking forward to bringing him to life on screen”.

Time started on Sunday and is airing weekly on BBC One at 9pm. Episodes can also be viewed on the iPlayer platform.