I’m still in shock. The second series of Jimmy McGovern’s prison drama Time ended last night, and I find myself unable to resume life as usual.
How extraordinarily prescient it was that in the same week King Charles told us that our government plans to increase prison sentences, just as massive overcrowding is forcing those same prisons to release inmates early, Time reminds us of all the reasons to doubt whether incarceration as currently practiced in the UK achieves anything of merit for many of those who break society’s rules. And the character Orla, played by Jodie Whittaker, whose only crime was not having the money to pay her electricity bill, is released from her cell into a tent in the same week that our former Home Secretary informed us that tent dwelling is a lifestyle choice.
But it is the character of Marie Louise, the Catholic nun played by Siobhan Finneran, who utterly steals the show for me. Whilst forms of religion that are little more than cultural labels are understandably derided by a society which believes itself to be post-Christian, people with genuine faith rarely get a look in on our screens except via bit-part characters who are weak, deranged or clearly deluded.
Rachel Cooke writes in the New Statesman: “McGovern is one of the few writers we have who still allows for faith – who understands it, and takes it seriously, refusing to belittle or deride it – and Finneran is wonderful in the role, the very way she walks suggestive of a wonky halo.” She has it spot on.
Faith is rooted in a struggle to believe that there are ways to live life that are more wholesome than others, and in the knowledge that trying to be the best version of ourselves is bloody hard work. Exemplars exist, but they can appear remote. Guidelines can be helpful but rules rarely are. We learn that Marie Louise struggles, and the more she is open about her failings the easier it becomes for those inmates who want to trust her but can only do so in tiny doses.
Any tiny doses is what Time is all about. We see inklings of mercy stifled by attempts to do the right thing that get thwarted in the lives of women who have been groomed to surrender their power to other forces – abusive men and addictive drugs. And possibilities that mercy may prevail are all too often buried under the inflexible rules of an inhumane prison system.
But by the final episode, we see seeds of grace begin to sprout as weeds do through concrete paths. In Time it is the fertile soil of honesty and confession that nurture the seedlings, just as happens in in real life. We rejoice as little victories begin to promise more hopeful futures.
Today I am on-call in my volunteer role as an Appropriate Adult. In the last year I have found myself perched on the very edge of some very harrowing stories. But I don’t get to find out what the CPS decides, or see how the clients I represent go on to live their lives. What I have learned is that none of us chooses the hand life deals us. And that everyone needs a Marie Louise in their lives.