Yorkshire's Sean Bean and Jodie Whittaker to star in new series of BBC prison drama Time alongside Happy Valley's Siobhan Finneran

The reality of life behind bars is a fascinating subject matter for those of us who’ve never set foot inside a prison. What’s it like to be locked up for most of the day? How dangerous are the inmates, really? What kind of people could you end up in a cell with? How are the prison guards?

Series one of Time, created and written by Cracker and Hillsborough writer Jimmy McGovern, did an excellent job of answering some of these questions and portraying the prison world of rules, petty bullying, high emotions and sudden violence.

Starring Sheffield-born The Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones star Sean Bean as inmate Mark Cobden and Boiling Point’s Stephen Graham as prison officer Eric McNally, the three-part mini-series explored life in a men’s prison and won the Bafta for Best Mini-Series in 2022, beating fellow nominees It’s A Sin and Stephen to the award.

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Now, the drama is returning for a second series – this time set in a women’s prison and featuring West Yorkshire Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker, The Last Of Us’s Bella Ramsey, and Tamara Lawrance, who starred alongside Letitia Wright in the 2022 film The Silent Twins. Plus, Happy Valley actress Siobhan Finneran returns, reprising her role as prison chaplain Marie-Louise.

Jodie Whittaker stars in the series as Orla. Photo: BBC/Sally Mais.Jodie Whittaker stars in the series as Orla. Photo: BBC/Sally Mais.
Jodie Whittaker stars in the series as Orla. Photo: BBC/Sally Mais.

Whittaker, Ramsey and Lawrance star as Orla, Kelsey and Abi respectively – three women who arrive at Carlingford Prison on the same day and have to navigate this new life together.

Orla is a poor mother who “fiddled the ‘leccy” and has landed a six-month sentence; Kelsey is a drug addict who’s been locked up for “a kilo of Class As”; and Abi’s doing a life sentence for murder. Three very different women, three very different crimes, one small cell.

“It was (an) intense, hard subject matter,” says Ramsey, 20. “There were days when I’d get a bit too attached to what I was doing. I went back home one time, and on the recommendation of Nick Nunn (who plays Kelsey’s boyfriend), I watched Finding Nemo, and that sorted me right out. So my thing then was to go back and watch Finding Nemo, and that would sort me out. Because it was tough, but cool. Really, really fun.”

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“Writing about male prisons is much easier,” says McGovern, 74. “I’ve spent a fair bit of time in male prisons – you know, not because I’ve been sentenced, but because I’ve gone in to do workshops and things like that.

Abi (TAMARA LAWRANCE), Kelsey (BELLA RAMSEY), Orla (JODIE WHITTAKER) in BBC prison series Time. Photo: BBC/Sally Mais.Abi (TAMARA LAWRANCE), Kelsey (BELLA RAMSEY), Orla (JODIE WHITTAKER) in BBC prison series Time. Photo: BBC/Sally Mais.
Abi (TAMARA LAWRANCE), Kelsey (BELLA RAMSEY), Orla (JODIE WHITTAKER) in BBC prison series Time. Photo: BBC/Sally Mais.

"So I know a fair bit about male prisons, but I knew nothing about female prisons. I couldn’t have written it without (co-writer) Helen (Black). I couldn’t have done it on my own, I know I couldn’t.”

The dynamics between the male and female prison population are remarkably different, McGovern notes. A very small percentage of inmates, around 4 per cent in 2023 according to the House of Commons Library’s UK Prison Population Statistics, are women – “and it should be something like 1 per cent, it should be 0.5 per cent,” says the writer.

“The vast majority of female prisoners should not be in there, the overwhelming majority of sentences are 12 months or less. A huge proportion of them are sentenced to six months or less. Six to 12 months is just enough to ruin your life. And to do nothing else whatsoever.”

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The impact of a short sentence is explored through Whittaker’s character Orla, who sees her life turned upside down by her incarceration. Ramsey, who uses they/them pronouns, comments on how their character Kelsey faces a different kind of struggle when she first arrives in Carlingford – heroin withdrawal, and a fight for a methadone prescription.

“It was quite scary,” Ramsey says of approaching the role. “I’m incredibly naive when it comes to drug use and drug misuse. I knew nothing about the prison system.

"I got sent these scripts asking if I wanted to be a part of it, and that’s the first time I’ve not had to audition for something – which was scary, that you’re going to put that much trust in me when I obviously have no idea what I was doing!

“So I was like: ‘Obviously I want to be part of this’, but then I was aware of how sensitive the subject matter was, and I wanted to make sure I got it right.

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"There was research and rehearsals, and there was a big element of trust, of myself and of everyone else on set, that we’d all make sure that it was right. So yes, it was scary. And it wasn’t until the day that I got on set for the first time that I believed that I could do it.”

Ramsey adds that they had to have “so much empathy” for Kelsey, to get under her skin and understand what she’s been through. “I don’t think you can play a character like Kelsey unless you have empathy for them – that was the whole thing, finding her humanity and her vulnerability,” they say.

“She’s just a person who’s had a bad start in life, and is lost, and just needs some guidance and support and ends up finding a path through the prison system.”

McGovern based the drama in his native Liverpool, though he says he was initially hesitant to set similar dramas in the city due to negative stereotypes attached to his hometown. Eventually, he decided enough was enough.

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“For a long, long time, I would never ever do it, because there’s a negative Scouse stereotype, isn’t there?” he says. “You know: Scousers are all burglars, they’re all thieves, etcetera, and to show Scousers in prison would just compound that.

"I think I’ve changed, and the country has changed, so I felt I can do it, really. But I want to write everything and set everything in my city because I love the place, and the older I get, the more I love it."

Time returns to BBC One on Sunday, October 29 at 9pm.

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