Jimmy McGovern, Lewis Arnold, Stephen Graham, and Hannah Walters talk Time on BBC First

by W. Andrew Powell
Behind the scenes with Sean Bean as Mark Cobden

Time is writer Jimmy McGovern’s new drama set inside the walls of a British prison, and it’s a striking look at the way the system fails so many people.

Starring Sean Bean as Mark, a guilty man trying to survive prison life alongside the worst in the system, it’s a remarkable series with a perfect cast.

Stephen Graham stars as Eric, a prison officer who’s trying to do the right thing, but when he’s pushed, he has to decide between the inmates, and his wife Sonia, played by Hannah Walters.

Talking about the new series with McGovern, director Lewis Arnold, and stars Graham and Walters, the four opened up about how the series came to be, the casting, and some of the subtleties of the drama.

Time premieres in Canada tonight on BBC First at 9:00 PM (ET/PT). BBC First is available for free preview through cable providers in Canada until January 2.

Sean Bean and Stephen Graham in Time

Jimmy, set the scene. How did this new series come about and how long were you working on it before filming began?

Jimmy McGovern: I think really, I’ve been working on it since the 80s. Because then, about 1982 onwards, I did a fair bit of work in prisons. You know, I was always popping in there and doing the Writers Workshop and popping out again and I was always fascinated by it for all kinds of reasons.

But, I think the main reason is [that] I always felt there, but for the grace of God, because I was young once as well and I did a few naughty things, but I was extremely lucky. So, I think it goes back to the 1980s, really, and I’m always looking for stories. The thing about a British prison is it’s full of stories.

Did you picture Stephen Graham and Sean Bean playing the characters when you were writing them?

McGovern: I did. I did. Yeah. I had those two uppermost in my thoughts all the way through. Yeah, absolutely. Because, I just think they’ve got faces you die for; full of life and full of compassion and humanity. I think if you’re going to write about prison, that’s the kind of thing you need, isn’t it? Compassion, humanity, experience all in the lines of those faces. Yes.

Stephen, what does it feel like to hear Jimmy saying those things about your face, essentially?

Stephen Graham: Yeah that’s wonderful. It’s lovely. It’s such an honour for me to even hear that Jimmy’s considered me while he’s writing the character. Do you know what I mean? For me, that’s something beyond my wildest dreams. To hear that from Jimmy is just a complete honour.

As I’ve said before many times, I grew up on Jimmy’s work, and on that kind of drama as a young lad then wanted to be an actor. That was the kind of stuff that I watched. Hillsborough blew my mind when I first saw it. Cracker, it was a beautiful film. I watched Priests, which was a while ago with Linus Roache and Christine Tremaco and I remember watching that and it was such an insight for me into character driven dramas. A brilliant story and superbly actors, but I assume his work always is. It’s kind of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

So for him to say that he’s thinking of me while he’s writing something it’s just, I mean, that to me, that’s beyond my wildest dreams.

Jimmy, as Stephen said, “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances” and Liverpool has been knitted throughout so much of your work. Why is it so important for you to depict Liverpool and the Northwest in your dramas, and also through the characters that you write?

McGovern: I don’t, I put them somewhere in the Northwest of England, approximately Warrington and the reason for that is the negative stereotype of the city. It’s a story I came across a while back in an episode of Accused and there was a part, it was about 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, no, 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, and they are skilled jobs and people train and learn and go on. The only way around that I think is to shoot in the city, but not necessarily set it in the city. That’s the kind of thing I’ve been doing over the years and that leads you wide open to charges of not giving scouts actors, jobs in scouts, in dramas, but that’s it I’m afraid.

Hannah, how did you hear about Time?

Hannah Walters: I don’t know if you’re aware as most people are but, I read everything before Stephen actually reads it. That’s what happened because in this instance, it’s the same as it usually happened. Didn’t it? Didn’t it happen that way?

Graham: Yeah of course, yeah. We’ve been in conversations with Jimmy before.

Walters: We were chatting before you even knew what was going on? That’s right. That’s how I found out about it through just speaking to Jimmy and then reading it.

As soon as I read it, I was just blown away, blown away. I couldn’t stop reading it from the minute I started. Didn’t, for one moment see myself, or did I? Maybe I did for a second see myself as Sonia. I just said to Stephen, whoever plays Sonia has got to be super, super natural and real in this part and then I kind of let it go because I didn’t want to put myself forward.

Graham: Then for that one, and for what happened next, if you don’t mind me saying, can I hand that over to Lewis because he has to take 80/90% of the credit for that.

Arnold: I mean, actually, Hannah has all the credit. I mean, you know, Hannah auditioned for the part like everybody else and she was phenomenal and we loved her read, we loved her energy, her understanding of the character and she was phenomenal and we’re really really blessed and lucky to have her but I mean, I can’t take any of the credit for it. Hannah auditioned for it and earned it because she’s a brilliant actress who we were lucky to have. It helped that Stephen was a real collaborator I think with the whole production, but particularly with me in terms of all the casting.

We had a great casting team that means Stephen would often talk because as many people know Stephen is a big champion of talent, not necessarily just Liverpool talent but talent in general, from directors, writers and actors and Stephen always had a good ear on the good people that we should be looking at. He knows Bobby, he knows James and I think we got Sue Johnson because I think Jimmy and Stephen did a pincer move on her and basically attacked her from two different sides and convinced her to do it.

I mean if she’d never said yes, I think the two of them would have been deeply deeply hurt. Stephen had mentioned Hannah, but it was just a, ‘look you should check her out.’

Arnold: I remember their [Graham and Arnold] first scene together was in a hospital room and they were giggling. We basically did it so that the other actor wasn’t in there until the last minute and this pair we’re giggling away for ages until they realized the serious nature of the scene, and then they’re amazing they just switched it on instantly but their chemistry it’s infectious as well for the crew. Everybody just loves working with them and look forward to them being on set because they are such a joy as a couple but also as a powerhouse of cinema.

Stephen Graham as Eric

I suspect some people are thinking, what’s going on between Hannah and Stephen? Are they acting? You guys are actually married, you are actual husband and wife. What is the secret to a happy marriage after 28 years or longer than 28 years?

Walters: I could say something ridiculous but I’m just going to be honest… it’s having butterflies in my stomach when I’ve been away from him for too long basically after 27 years and he’s my best friend and I want to kill him at times but I just adore him.

Graham: Someone who makes me want to be a better man every single day and sometimes I get that really wrong and why has this suddenly turned into couple’s counseling for me and you? We had a moment today, we were ordering some food and it all went a bit wrong.

Walters: This is what it is. You just got to be honest with each other, apologize when you’re wrong.

Graham: Yeah, when you’re wrong. Be accountable for your own actions within the relationship.

How was it then acting alongside each other?

Graham: Oh can I answer first? For me it was phenomenal. It was absolutely phenomenal. Because like she said, I watched Hannah back in the day and thought she was brilliant and there’s some self-tapes that I’ve done with Hannah when she’s gone auditioning for parts and she’s always kind of got down to the last two for big roles and then that old cliche thing of we’ve gone with someone who’s more famous or we’ve gone with someone who’s more well-known and just watching her read and doing scenes over the course of our time of being together and also while she’s been a working actress. Just being blown away in reading the scene with her and just thinking, ‘wow, wow man she’s amazing,’ and I think we kind of got warmed up a little bit but in the hospital that day, while Lewis was just on about, I remember looking at her and thinking, yeah I better put on my boots properly, she’s gone for this and it was lovely and the characters we played, it was nothing like us at all, so that was really lovely to explore.

Arnold: Some of the problems were actually holding you back because it’s your wife and you knew Paddy, who plays your son. Some of it was actually sometimes saying to you, this isn’t a scene where you break but actually you’re struggling to break because the energy was so infectious between you and it was so real sometimes I found actually the notes were like just hold it back a little bit… it was so brilliant to watch. It was smart casting, not from my perspective but from Stephen who obviously made the first suggestion, but from the team really.

Stephen, we see you playing the character Eric. How did you get into that character?

Graham: I’ll put this down to Lewis…. Jimmy told me about Lewis and said, ‘look, there’s this great young director and he’s done some really good stuff and just have a look at this.’

So I got to see those before it actually came out and I was really impressed with it. I was blown away by the performance but we watched it and it was the cinematography and the colours and the textures they used and I was excited and straight away and I was like, ‘yeah Jimmy is the knots, I can’t wait.’

I’ve got a really good close friend Danny Mays who was on Days and I phoned Danny and said you’re going to love him. He’s just lovely, he’s just a wonderful man and he’s a brilliant director and you’re gonna love him. And Danny was bang on. I had that respect instantly for his work and the quality of his work that I’d seen.

Some people you just meet and it just clicks straight away. We became slightly obsessive with each other in a lovely natural way… we’d constantly text each other and we’d be speaking all the time about the character or about the characters and that mutual connection was just there I feel.

Walters: You were sending each other video footage about the characters getting into characters.

Graham: Yeah, and different little things and Lewis sent these documentaries. It was called Prison and I watched them and I just thought it was brilliant to give such an insight which was magnificent and it was very tearful and there were things which goes into and develops along with people that are in prison that shouldn’t really be in prison, they should be in a mental institution which Jimmy wrote beautifully. It was that kind of way.

Then it was one of those moments where we were out in the prison and I met this lovely fellow, he introduced me to this lovely fellow who had been a prison guard for like 25 years or something and… I went off with him for about two and a half hours then I come back… and I wanted to impress.

I got some keys off props. I can see he was dead excited… I kind of got into character a little bit and opened the door and I stood in a certain place with my back towards the door, open the flap before I went in. I just saw him watching me like that. When you do this and then he puts them over there, you always have your back to the door make sure no one, never get yourself trapped inside a cell and he was helping me with stuff and so was this other fellow about treating each prisoner differently, as a human being, but also being fair which is what’s in the script.

He was just really, ‘wow, you’ve really got into that’ and I suppose I soaked it up like a sponge. It was a combination of the both of us.

Jimmy, Lewis, Hannah and Stephen have talked about how realistic you made Time and it literally leaps out of you, the realism. What were the challenges, if there were any, in writing this particular drama?

McGovern: I think there was a huge challenge in that I think it should have been four hours long. But for all kinds of reasons we had to get it down to three and that was the main problem for me, trying to be as concise as I possibly could.

It’s paid off enormously because we have a great editor; he’s a wonderful editor, that guy. I don’t think there’s an ounce of fat on anything in the three hours, there’s not an ounce of fat anywhere and yet it doesn’t seem to be abruptly cut or harshly cut. It seems very fluid, very smooth, very quick as well.

Even now I think it should have been four hours, [but] I think it’s a brilliant three hours. I really do.

Sean Bean as Mark

Was the entire drama filmed inside a real prison and how does that work out?

Arnold: Yes, of course the wings and the cells and elements of it, and then there are elements shot in Liverpool. The prison was not in Liverpool, because you obviously have to go to a disused prison. And then elements we did, so the visit room again was our designer took an old school gym and turned it into a visitor room, which was wonderful.

Eric’s house and Sonia’s house were in Liverpool. There were many elements we shot in Liverpool, and made work, police stations all that kind of stuff. The majority of the prison stuff, the key stuff, the landings, was shot in a disused prison which ironically myself and the exact producers shot in five years ago when it first closed, just before it was meant to be turned into a student accommodation that never happened, luckily for us, so we were still able to use it now.

We looked at so many different prisons as well, but that prison had such a feeling and energy, especially when Hannah got in and put a visual stamp on it as well.

They didn’t want us to repaint it so it still very much looks like it did when we left it. I think there’s even a cell there that they’ve left as Sean’s cell and Eric’s little booth so that people can see if they wanted to.

Jimmy, why is it so important to you to continue to have authentic accents? Because I’m sure people realize when watching it, there’s not a fake accent I can detect anywhere. Everyone is authentically from where they’re from.

McGovern: I don’t know. I think I know nothing about acting. I know, apart from the fact that I find it absolutely impossible. I don’t know how people act, but it seems to me that if anything gets in the way of the acting, it should go. If adopting a false accent is getting in the way of the acting, then don’t adopt a false accent. That seems to me to be such a basic thing to say.

Hannah, if I can go back to you and talk about the character, Sonia. She is a really good mother. She’s married to Stephen’s character, but she really is thrust into some quite difficult moral dilemmas. Did it make you think about what you might do if you were in a similar situation with Stephen?

Walters: Yeah, of course, because that’s the only way that you’re going to paint realism and naturalness behind it, is if you do put yourself in that position.

Like we were saying, I put myself so much in that position that sometimes Lewis had to say Hannah, it’s not actually happening to you, so you just need to bring it back a little bit, that emotion. But of course, that’s the only way that you can play it is by putting yourself in those positions.

I mean, I’m a mother of two so I have a little moral dilemmas of course, and they’re teenagers, and I’m sure I’ll have more moral dilemmas bringing up teenagers.

Jimmy, without giving too much away, what do audiences have in store across all three episodes of Time?

McGovern: I think it’s a great story. Not just a great story–great stories. Two main stories that I think hook you and they take you along, and they’re really worth staying with, they really are. I think at the end, it says something that should be said about the British penal system and it is not good. The British penal system is not good, I’m afraid. It needs looking at it.

Arnold: It’s one of those classic Jimmy McGovern shows where I think whoever you are, there’s a character in there that you can put yourself in their shoes. And what we were just saying about Hannah, I think you go through the morality of Eric and it applies to Sonia. I think that with all the characters, you can put yourself in their shoes and imagine what you were doing and what it would be like for you.

I think every character in there is very real and human, and you kind of could put yourself in any of their shoes. I think that it’s one of those dramas where it’s painful to watch, and people keep saying it’s difficult to watch. It’s difficult to watch because any of us could put ourselves in there and worry about the struggles and the morality and the moral dilemmas these people find themselves in and the strength that they have to find to overcome what it is they have to overcome.

Particularly in the case of Mark and Eric, but I think that goes wider into characters like Sonia, who has the equal morality in terms of their decision as a couple and what they’re going to do. I think Jimmy kind of creates really relatable characters that we can put ourselves in their shoes and Jimmy allows us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes who we can kind of relate to. I’d be really interested to see which audience and which characters people respond to.

Graham: I always found that it’s interesting that Time is difficult to watch. Now, no disrespect, because I love the fact that stuff I do is difficult to watch for people. [Bridgerton] that’s not difficult to watch. Why is this difficult to watch? I think this is difficult to watch because it’s coming into your living room and I assume, as Jimmy said, we need to look at the penal system. We need to look at certain elements within this piece and it’s not overly political or ramming the message down your throat, but if it’s difficult to watch, it’s difficult to watch because you’re looking at a society which is represented by yourself.

Surely, it’s putting a mirror up to society and not being sure if we’re getting this right–maybe that’s why it’s difficult to watch because it makes you think. Now if I can be a part of something that makes you think, if we can all as a collaboration be a part of something–we’re fortunate enough to be in that position to come into your living room for this one hour of your day. If we can make you think for a split second afternoon then that’s all I ever wanted to be a part of.

Walters: It sits with you for just that moment.

Graham: I’m not getting on a soapbox–I’ve noticed that, and I do quite a bit–if I can come into your living room and make you think as well as part of something that is also entertaining, because ultimately it’s got to be entertaining, then wow. Then I want to make anything I do, I want it to be difficult to watch.

Jimmy said he thought about Sean and Stephen for the roles, but could they have been cast the other way round?

McGovern: I never really thought about it actually. I don’t see why not? I don’t know. I think I have to put that to Stephen I’m afraid. I don’t see why not. Stephen, what did you think?

Graham: I don’t see why not either, we could have both. Yeah, yeah, definitely. That would have been interesting.

Walters: To be honest when I first started reading, I was reading Stephen as Sean’s character and then I went, ‘oh, no, no, no, it’s not Mark, it’s Eric.’ For a second I could see Stephen in it and then I swapped through and saw Sean in it, but I could easily have seen both of them play their roles, I think.

Arnold: We’ve got two heavyweight actors. I think we’d be lucky to have one of them; we had two of them. I’m going to hedge my bets and just say, absolutely, they could have played it either way. Stephen has a strength that I think works for Eric and actually, what surprised me about Sean is he really tapped in; he changed his whole body as good actors do and I think Stephen did the same.

I remember the first scene and this thing about the research and I blocked the scene and before he even started, I was talking to him about how he’s going to do the scene, and he was like ‘actually you wouldn’t stand there, you’d stand with your foot at the door,’ and changed his whole posture. Also at the moment he’s built like a–he’s massive, his guns are as big as my head. As a prisoner right now, I’d be like Stephen couldn’t play a prisoner because I think he’d eat them all alive.

For me right now, no, I couldn’t see them the other way around right now because I’ve been through the process and I think Stephen brought his strength and inner strength in terms of his morality and his moral compass, that’s what Stephen bought. What Sean bought was a vulnerability that Jimmy said to me when we first met, ‘you know, you’re gonna see this, Sean, his biggest strength is vulnerability’ and I think that’s what Sean bought too. I think those two things are what made those characters for me.

Photos courtesy of BBC/BBC Studios/James Stack.

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