In the opening episode of Time, Jodie Whittaker’s character Orla O’Riordan loses everything when she is sent to prison. Her home, her children, her freedom and her future, all gone. Her crime? Being poor during a cost of living crisis and, in desperation, making one poor decision.
“When I came in here, I had a house, a job, and a family. Now I’ve got nothing,” she says, in a moving early scene.
If series one of Jimmy McGovern’s prison-based series was powerful – Sean Bean and Stephen Graham producing brilliant performances as it explored crime and punishment and redemption – then series two, this time set in a women’s prison, could not be more timely.
They play three women thrown together when they arrive in the same prison on the same day. Women whose lives could not be more different.
The script, by McGovern and Helen Black, asks vital questions. Is prison the right place for a woman who can’t afford her electricity bill, a woman with serious mental health issues, a woman in the grip of addiction?
Jimmy McGovern is not just an important writer, but he is a political voice. And I feel as if my politics lean in the same direction
Time opens with Orla getting her kids ready for school. In the next scene she’s in a police van on her way to prison.
“Orla loses everything for not being able to afford her electricity bill. There’s no support and the punishment is they take everything from her,” says Whittaker, when she sits down with The Big Issue at BFI Southbank ahead of the London premiere. “That’s the infuriating thing – when the punishment doesn’t match the crime.”
Earlier this year an HM Inspectorate of Prisons report found that the majority of women were leaving the UK’s largest women’s prison, HMP Bronzefield, Surrey, without sustainable accommodation. Charlie Taylor, HMIP’s chief inspector of prisons, said: “Without stable, safe accommodation many women are liable to have mental health relapses, return to substance misuse and become involved in crime on release, creating more victims and, at great cost to the taxpayer, repeating the cycle and undoing the good work of the prison.”
We see that situation writ large in Time. Whittaker, speaking out more freely since leaving Doctor Who, perhaps, says she was able to channel her anger at the way the criminal justice system is failing women into her performance.
“People are leaving prison and they’re being given a tent. You go into prison not a criminal, essentially, and you come out with nothing. You’re literally given the streets to live on.”
Whittaker looks as exasperated as she sounds. “All we hear are reports that prisons are on their knees. Surely there’s a better system. Reading about this makes you so rageful you can tear into every scene full of rage and frustration.”
Her research involved looking into statistics around women in prison. And they make for grim reading. Over the next three years a 30% increase in the populations of women’s prisons in the UK is projected, at a time when capacity is stretched to breaking point and housing and cost of living crises are forcing people into impossible decisions.
“Baroness Corston did a report [in 2006] into women’s prisons,” continues Whittaker. “It said lots of women were imprisoned for non-violent crimes and it was breaking families when these people aren’t a risk to society. Housing is a huge issue – 90% of the time, if a man has an established home life, he can go straight back into it from prison. But for women that is not the case.
“So to put that woman in prison, take her away from her children and her home when at the end of it the system can’t afford to house her? What is the point of that destruction? Particularly in cases like Orla’s, where she is the sole caregiver. She can only get her children back if she lives in a safe environment. But there’s a housing crisis, the houses aren’t available. So you’re given a tent.
“We all know the prison system is at breaking point. Well, how much has that cost? You’ve got kids in care, social services involvement, and someone in the penal system that will struggle to break out of it… I can say all this to The Big Issue because we have similar politics!”
Whittaker has been a supporter of The Big Issue for years and knows what we’re all about. “The whole point of The Big Issue is supporting people on the streets through the social and economic crisis we’re in,” she says. “You are helping people through mental health issues, drug problems, and this housing crisis. But then the prison system pushes more people onto the streets.”
Scenes of O’Riordan leaving prison into an uncertain future are smartly written. “The prison officer is mortified,” explains Whittaker. “There is no caricature governor in the corner who wants to keep everyone down. It’s a broken system. So the scene is very simple and very brilliant. My character thinks it’s a fucking joke. She’s waiting for the punchline. But there isn’t a punchline.”
Whittaker, who has specialised in high quality ensemble TV dramas and films – from Broadchurch and The Night Watch to Attack The Block – since her breakout role alongside Peter O’Toole in Venus in 2006, leapt at the chance to work with McGovern. The Lakes was her gateway into the writer’s unique voice, while she calls series one of Time “one of the best things I’ve ever seen”.
“As someone from the north and from my generation, Jimmy McGovern is so important. He’s not just an important writer for us, but he is a political voice. And I feel as if my politics lean in the same direction,” she says.
“I was too young for some of them, but I was allowed to watch them all. They’re not just character based, there’s a social commentary that’s really vital and complicated – because it’s not always easy, it’s not black and white.
“Even before I’d opened the script, they said Jimmy’s written it with Helen Black and it’s going to be directed by Andrea Harkin. I was like, where do I sign? Hearing that Bella and Tamara were attached to it? It was an absolute no-brainer.”
Whittaker is full of praise for her co-stars. Ramsey is outstanding as Kelsey Morgan, who arrives at Carlingford Prison with a cocky attitude masking her vulnerability and a debilitating heroin habit to the surprise news that she is pregnant. Lawrance’s story, playing lifer Abi Cochrane, is revealed more slowly.
“I was watching The Last of Us while we were filming,” grins Whittaker.
“At one point Bella came in my trailer while I was watching episode four and I was like, ‘You need to get out – this is a very tense moment!’ It’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen.
“I couldn’t be more chuffed to be working with them. If I had that kind of talent at their age? Bella was 19 when we were filming and Tamara maybe 27 – Silent Twins? What a performance! Fucking hell, if Bella and Tamara are the next generation of actors coming up, we are well lucky.”
Whittaker has been busy since leaving Doctor Who – taking maternity leave with her second child before returning to work. “I took a year off,” she says. “But no one really noticed because Doctor Who was staggered over time. Had my first job back been Russell T Davies saying, ‘Do you want to reprise your Doctor?’, I’d have been ‘Yeah, baby, I’m there!’”
Instead, Whittaker will be watching Doctor Who’s 60th anniversary completely spoiler free. “I’m not involved. I genuinely am not,” she says (two denials. One too many, Doctor Who fans?).
“So now, because no one’s telling me any storylines, for the first time ever I will get to watch it and have no fucking clue what’s going to happen.
“I’m really excited to hear Russell’s beautiful dialogue and see what direction it goes in. Because those paths are infinite and limitless. To be on my couch watching, knowing there’s no pressure on me, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop.”
Whittaker has also completed filming on Toxic Town, Jack Thorne’s Netflix dramatisation of the 1980s environmental disaster in Corby caused by toxic waste, but is bound by the SAG/AFTRA strike so can’t discuss it.
But UK viewers can soon watch Australian thriller One Night, her first post-Doctor Who job, on Paramount Plus. And she’s keen to shout about this one. “Before I read the script, I was going: I’ve got a little baby, so if I go back to work it has to be really practical, I need to work close to home,” she says. “Then I read it and was like, ‘Hey, guys, how do we all feel about moving to Sydney?’ So we all went. And it was an extraordinary experience.
“I’m really lucky. Everything I’ve done this year has explored the female experience – within friendships, relationships, motherhood.
“I’ve come out of playing the Doctor, which is my absolute happiness, and I’m on my third job now – all of which have been incredibly emotional and very much in social realism.
“It wasn’t calculated. I’m not very strategic. All it is for me is script and character. And I’ve been handed some absolute gems.”
Time is on BBC One on Sunday nights and available on iPlayer.
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!