Inside story

Inside story

By Michael Pickard
October 13, 2023

In production

BBC Studios Drama producers Michael Parke and Andrew Morrissey reflect on creating the second season of the BBC’s award-winning drama Time, which tells a new story of survival and community behind bars – but this time in a women’s prison.

Debuting in 2021, the double Bafta-winning first season of BBC drama Time matched beautiful writing with powerful performances to tell the story of two very different men trying to survive behind bars.

It starred Sean Bean as Mark Cobden, freshly incarcerated, consumed by guilt for his crime and out of his depth inside the volatile prison system, while Stephen Graham played Eric McNally, an honourable prison warden forced to choose between his principles and his family when a dangerous inmate identifies his biggest weakness.

Created and written by Jimmy McGovern, the standout drama was rightly named best miniseries at the 2022 Baftas, while Bean took home the richly deserved leading actor prize. There were also nominations for Graham, director Lewis Arnold and Mark Wolf for photography and lighting.

But while the story of Mark and Eric concluded over three episodes, Time has now been transformed into an anthology series with a new story – this time set in a women’s prison.

The three-part second season, which will launch on BBC One and BBC iPlayer this autumn, once again balances emotion and high stakes as three women arrive at the fictional Carlingford Prison on the same day. First-timer Orla O’Riordan (Jodie Whittaker), lifer Abi Cochrane (Tamara Lawrance) and drug addict Kelsey Morgan (Bella Ramsey) – who is also pregnant, as the BBC’s first-look images reveal – are thrown together to face an unfamiliar world. But even with the ever-present threat of violence within the prison’s walls, they discover that an unexpected sense of community and a shared understanding might still be possible.

Time S2 moves the action to a women’s prison, with Jodie Whittaker’s Orla among the inmates

McGovern (Broken, Cracker) returns to pen the scripts with Helen Black (Life & Death in the Warehouse), while Andrea Harkin (The Confessions of Frannie Langton) directs.

At the time season one was made – the drama is produced by BBC Studios’ Drama Unit and coproduced with BritBox North America – the idea of bringing the show back to tell another prison story hadn’t been discussed. But once filming had wrapped, thoughts did start to turn to how it could continue, and whether it would follow the same characters.

“But that didn’t feel right,” BBC Studios executive producer Andrew Morrissey tells DQ. “It was actually an opportunity to tell something in an anthology way, in the same sort of universe but in a different environment. That felt really creatively exciting for all of us, especially Jimmy.”

“Working with Jimmy, it has to feel really authentic and there has to be a real purpose behind [a story],” notes fellow exec producer Michael Parke. That motivation then led Parke, McGovern and Morrissey to take a tour of Drake Hall women’s prison in Staffordshire, where it quickly became apparent that women’s experiences of being locked up differ dramatically from those of men. In particular, they learned that shorter sentences often have a bigger impact on women than men – and this became the starting point for the series and Whittaker’s character Orla.

“A man can go into prison for, say, a three- to six-month sentence and come out and expect that his family home is still there, his family unit is still there and his partner may have looked after the children,” Parke explains. “But a woman can go in for the same sentence and she can lose everything.

Game of Thrones and The Last of Us star Bella Ramsey plays drug addict Kelsey

“For one of the characters, it is her very first time in prison. She doesn’t expect to go to prison. So through her eyes, we see what it’s like to go to prison on a very short sentence and the ripple effect that has upon her life and the life of her family.”

The execs then started to build up the story around that idea, but McGovern was clear from the outset that he wanted a woman with him as part of the writing team. “And so Helen came on board,” Parke continues. “But [season two] wasn’t inevitable. It was more about going into the world and seeing what stories felt like they needed to be told.”

It’s not just the inmates’ circumstances that might differ between men’s and women’s prisons, but the environment in which they live too. At Drake Hall, “it still feels like a prison, it has violence and that sense of lives that have not gone quite to plan,” Morrissey notes, “but we found there’s a stronger sense of community. There are smaller hubs like wing houses they live in, which again fosters that sense of community. But then bullying is a really big issue there, and there could be a lot more emotional bullying as well. There are so many aspects that felt really specific [to a women’s prison], and they felt really exciting creatively.”

Alongside Whittaker, Lawrance and Ramsay as the central trio, Time S2 also stars Siobhan Finneran, who reprises her S1 role as prison chaplain Marie-Louise O’Dell. Further casting includes Sophie Willan as Maeve Riley, Julie Graham, Alicia Forde, Lisa Millett, Faye McKeever, Kayla Meikle, James Corrigan, Nicholas Nunn and Maimuna Memon.

“She’s amazing and a real core to the show,” Morrissey says of Happy Valley star Finneran’s return. “But also there’s an extraordinary ensemble cast built around them. People will be quite excited when they see the breadth of talent surrounding those four lead actors. There are some really standout performances. I wouldn’t even pick anyone out because, as an ensemble, it’s superlative.”

Siobhan Finneran reprises her role as prison chaplain Marie-Louise O’Dell

Morrissey describes being on set as a “privilege,” whether it was watching a particularly emotional moment where “I felt like I was breaking down behind the monitor” or a thrilling sequence that left him on the edge of his seat.

“They were so supportive of one another as a cast, especially because of the nature of the material,” the exec continues. “When we shoot it, we’re on location as much as possible. And then where that’s not possible, we’re building it to try to replicate the intensity and the claustrophobia of that real environment.”

Parke picks up: “The majority of the characters within the drama live in one house within the prison, so there was a community. And while there was some really tough material they had to approach, you could see there was a real bond between the actors, that they really supported each other. There was actually a lot of laughing and they were keeping each other buoyed up. Then when people had to do a really tough scene, you could feel the support coming from the cast, from the crew, just willing these people into this difficult place.

“The idea of trauma felt really real, and watching it felt very hard. Then because within the show there is some joy and some community, and there is humour and humanity, that also pervaded on the set.”

A former lawyer, Black came on board to help McGovern write the scripts at a very early stage in development, “before a word was written,” Morrissey says. She also joined the production team on research trips, and then the writers “hit the ground running” when it was time to start devising each episode.

Tamara Lawrance as Abi, who is serving a life sentence

“Even though they’d never worked together, it was really organic,” Morrissey says. “One would lead on an episode while the other was beginning the next and then they’d swap over and just keep talking about the drafts. It’s a Jimmy McGovern-led show but Helen contributed massively through that process.”

“Helen’s amazing, she’s such talented writer, but she also had a life before she was a writer so she had this brilliant perspective on the world we were talking about,” Parke says. “She’d seen it from a different inside point of view, and so from the very start she was a font of knowledge for us. It was really collaborative.”

The research trips to real prisons also dictated how the show’s Carlingford Prison would be staged, either on location around Liverpool and the broader Merseyside county or built inside a studio. On this occasion, there wasn’t a single location available that replicated a women’s prison, unlike on S1, which was shot at the disused Shrewsbury Prison.

“Women’s prisons haven’t necessarily been shown on screen in the same way as men’s prisons have, and in particular, women’s prisons in the UK feel very different,” Parke notes. “This was about constructing the idea of the houses the women live in and the wing they might initially just spend time in when they first get to prison. What we’ve got on screen will surprise people as to what a women’s prison is really like, but it feels very truthful. The team did an amazing job.”

But despite the new story and change in environment, the challenges that come with filming any prison-set drama remained the same. With most of the characters spending their time locked up, there’s a limit to what they can do and where they can go. Those creative challenges never became frustrating, however. “It was just our reality because it’s the reality of the truth of it,” Morrissey says.

The second season will again comprise three episodes

In practical terms, prison cells and police holding cells are naturally restrictive, owing to their size. “So for the director and DOP, that’s a challenge,” Parke says. “But actually the reward of showing the world as it is really is worth it. That was demonstrated in season one and we’ve followed that through in season two.

“You’re not given much privacy in prison. You might be sharing a room or a cell with someone else who you don’t like, you don’t know or you don’t trust. And there’s that feeling of paranoia or sometimes community and friendship. But we wanted to get that feeling of claustrophobia. These are adults living in close proximity in a way most adults don’t have to, so that changes how you live.”

It’s the truth and universality of the situations in which the characters find themselves that have helped Time become a hit around the world. Broadcasters and platforms in countries including France (Canal+), Estonia (ETV), Greese (Cosmote), Latin America (HBO Max) and sub-Saharan Africa (Mnet and Showmax) also aired S1 following deals with distributor BBC Studios, which is also behind upcoming dramas Blackshore for Ireland’s RTÉ and Kidnapped (working title) for BBC Three and ZDFneo in Germany.

“The idea that it’s had that impact, we’re incredibly proud of that and I hope season two does the same because it does have those qualities right the way through,” Morrissey says.

“It will also be landing at a certain time,” Parke adds. “The world’s in a difficult place at the moment. One of our characters arrives in prison because of a crime of economic necessity, trying to keep her kids warm. That will resonate with people. The challenges these women all go through, be that addiction or mental health or living in extreme need and want, that will land.

“But I also really hope the sense of community will resonate with people, that the stories will feel universal. I don’t think they feel parochial at all. They feel like this could be about women anywhere in the world.”

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