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TV review: Time, Union with David Olusoga, and Lenny Henry: One of a kind

03 November 2023

BBC/Matt Squire

Abi (Tamara Lawrance), an inmate, talks to the prison chaplain, Marie-Louise (Siobhan Finnernan), in Time (BBC1, Sundays)

Abi (Tamara Lawrance), an inmate, talks to the prison chaplain, Marie-Louise (Siobhan Finnernan), in Time (BBC1, Sundays)

WORK does not pay, prison does not work, is the stance of the second series of the Roman Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern’s prison drama Time (BBC1, Sundays). HM Prison Carlingford, a women’s prison, is a well-worked mesh of dysfunction, desperation, and violence; and yet McGovern’s handling of pace and character pulls us into his world.

Ensemble playing by the mainly female cast is amazing. Opening with Jodie Whittaker’s Orla organising her children’s breakfast, the mother appears poised and dressed for a day at the office

A close-up of Orla jolting along in a prison van, screaming at the driver to give her a phone, to let her children know what has happened, conveys the black suit’s failed purpose. Orla’s cellmates are Abi (Tamara Lawrance), who is outed for infanticide, and a heroin addict, Kelsey (Bella Ramsey), whose prison medical reveals pregnancy.

Kelsey is a compelling mix of street sassiness and vulnerability, and, learning that keeping the baby leads to a shorter sentence, she discovers a newly minted future. Weaving between incarcerated lead characters and prison-staff chorus is the chaplain, Marie-Louise (played by Siobhan Finneran), who does not mention God, and keeps a therapeutic silence when her flock raise practical woes outside her scope.

Her silence continues under Abi’s interrogation about the exhilaration of “weeping, put-upon women”. Her motivation for a ministry transfer from male prisons distils the hallmarks of engaging TV drama: “Nine out of ten men won’t talk, and nine out of ten women won’t shut up.”

Making excellence appear effortless continued with Union with David Olusoga (BBC2, Monday of last week). Charting Ireland’s journey since the Acts of Union 1800 to independence, the historian told the parallel early-20th-century stories of a Protestant family near Shankhill Road, Belfast, who joined the Ulster Volunteer Force to remain part of the UK, and their Falls Road neighbours, who supported the Easter Rising.

The narrative fast-forwarded to the Troubles, and then Scotland’s derelict Ravenscraig steelworks — a post-industrial landscape of spectral trees: a fitting image for the premise that union appeals most during prosperity and equality.

Sir Lenny Henry’s father, Winston, worked in a Smethwick foundry, and the entertainer credited his mother, Winifred, for a career spanning from New Faces in 1975 to Othello in 2009, and writing TV dramas. While Lenny Henry: One of a kind (ITV1, Thursday of last week) omitted Winifred’s sending her son to Sunday school for 14 years, contributors’ testaments to Sir Lenny’s multi-million-pound charity efforts, and the star’s insistence on a worldwide concept of “neighbour”, speak to the power of his formative Christian years.

Gillean Craig is away.

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