Writer Jimmy McGovern guarantees quality, his production company is a must have drama factory for BBC, and his series gets the full marketing treatment and premium billing on Sunday-night telly. Our viewing habits have, of course, changed. I watched the first episode of Time last Sunday and during the week watched the other two episodes on iPlayer. That’s the new norm. Unless it’s Line of Duty, (none of which I’ve watched) expecting upwards of ten million viewers to tune in on a Sunday night is economic and entertainment madness. As consumers we want to watch when we have time. Or so the theory goes.
The Howard League for Prison Reform tells us there are currently 78 037 people in prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales. David Leslie in Banged Up (published in 2014) tells us there are 120 prisons in England. Scotland has the highest number of people in prison or probation in the UK, and the highest in Europe. Statistics from the Council of Europe, a human rights organisation, show Scotland’s “correctional rate” is 548 people per 100,000 – behind only Russia and Lithuania. The correctional rate for England and Wales was 459, while the Europe-wide median was 318. That’s all the boring stuff nobody much reads. Jimmy McGovern knows this, people want stories they can relate to, and that’s what he’s selling us.
I’m sure I passed an ex-lifer walking down Duntocher Road on Thursday, who had been serving a sentence for two murders. He drunk in my pub, and he’ll be out on license. I talked to another guy whose son is in prison for murder. His date for release was put back because he got involved in a gym brawl. Then there is the ongoing case of a twenty-six-year-old Dalmuir lad, who was said to have been put in a bath of what was described as ‘a corrosive substance’, and later died. The number of murderers on license has doubled in the past five years. The Probation Service was privatised and renationalised because it was in such a colossal failure that couldn’t be ignored even by Tory scum. But here’s the rub, our prisons are in a permanent state of siege and overcrowding. Yet crime levels are generally falling. I live in a very quiet bit of Dalmuir with other old folk, nothing much happens, and that’s the way I like it. I don’t want drama.
Jimmy McGovern’s day job (most writers’ task) is not just making something happen, but to make things worse. So here we have the new fish, Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) sent to prison. He’s killed somebody, after drink driving. Is he mad, bad, or sad?
Well, he’s remorseful, but not really bad, after all he’s a middle-class schoolteacher and most prisoner are working class and come from deprived backgrounds (or ex-school teacher, McGovern had Sean Bean dress up at night as a woman and recite The Lady of Shallot [https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45359/the-lady-of-shalott-1832] to his pupils in a previous production, which is a poetry crime in extremis, so they have previous).
The twin strand of the storyline has prison officer Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) on the wing that Mark Cobden is imprisoned. ‘You were hard but fair,’ a former inmate tells him when he’s picking up drugs. But that’s to jump ahead.
Then you have the mad, Bernard (Aneurin Barnard). ‘Top bunk or bottom?’ Mark Cobden asks when he’s introduced to his new cellmate. Bernard’s body is covered in scars. He cuts himself, self-harms and is dragged away to the hospital wing regularly. He’s sick in the head. Prison officer McNally tells his mum, he’s sorry about what happened, but they were doing the best they could. The truth was most of the folk in prison were sick in the head. She doesn’t care. She only cares about her son.
In the preface to David Leslie’s Banged Up, he explains prisoner’s crimes range from the farcical to the terrible, but prisoners have one thing in common. Time. How to beat the boredom of being locked up 23 out of 24 hours, how to do time. Boredom is a killer. Drugs and bootleg booze a welcome relief. Cobden finds himself being stuck in his cell a bit of relief (like many others), because he’s been bullied by Johno (James Nelson Joyce). He steals his grub. Jumps in front of him in the queue for phones. And threatens to set his feet on fire with turpentine. He’s already flung a kettle of boiling water and added sugar so it sticks to a fellow prisoner he calls a grass. Cobden hides in his cell as a coping strategy.
The local Glaswegian kingpin on the block tells him that ‘his life will be hell’ until he hits back. Prison officer McNally’s life is already hell. His son is in a Young Offender’s and he’s told he’ll be assaulted unless McNally brings in stuff to the prison. McNally arranges with his governor for his son to be ghosted to another institution. But he’s sent a reminder that didn’t work. McNally isn’t trying to protect himself, but his son, and family. Hard choices.
Jimmy McGovern knows how to save face. Stevie (Dean Fagan) for example is Cobden’s new cell mate. And as part of retributive justice is allowed to tell his story to the victim’s parents. A lad he stabbed in a brawl. McGovern allows us to look at it in two ways. Stevie admits he was skint and took a drink from the man he murder’s pint, but he didn’t have enough money to buy him another. He’s in the sad category, but to save face he challenged him to fight. Took a hammering and stabbed him. It makes the convoluted sense that anyone living in a working-class district well understands.
Prisoners worst enemies are themselves is the message McGovern pitches again and again. And he’s right. But it’s not a vote winner. Locking so many people up, especially women makes no sense either economically (McGovern gets in the cost by admitting for every prisoner inside there’s an administrator’s wage being paid, and of course, added profit for private companies added as we ape the American model) or morally. Next to wrapping yourself in the flag, floggings and beating of prisoner is a sure way to get yourself elected and stay elected. The Honourable Margaret Thatcher, for example, favoured hanging and corporal punishment. Johnson favours whatever makes him sound less like the dim-witted pantomime horse he really is. Back to the drama. Yeh, worth watching. McGovern, as we expect, hits all the right beats in the right way and asks question of what we mean by atonement, and if such a thing as justice is possible outside The Book of Job?