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Sean Bean plays newly imprisoned Mark Cobden in the series, which debuted on Sunday night, while Stephen Graham appears as Eric McNally, a principled jail officer.
The pair reunited with screenwriter Jimmy McGovern for the three-part series, which has attracted four- and five-star reviews.
Game Of Thrones star Bean and Line Of Duty actor Graham previously appeared together in McGovern’s anthology series Accused, in which Bean played a cross-dressing English teacher.
Writing in The Guardian, Lucy Mangan praised the ensemble cast.
She wrote: “The performances of Bean and Graham are, even though we have come to expect brilliance from them both, astonishing.
“So, too, are those from everyone in smaller roles, none of which is underwritten or sketchy, and who thicken the drama into something more profoundly moving and enraging at every turn. Time well spent.”
Ed Cumming, a critic writing for the Independent, described the series as “an avant-garde experiment in replicating what it would be like to do time with Sean Bean”.
He added: “It’s a believable vision of a penal system in which decent men are put into impossible positions, and from which inmates are likely to come out in worse shape than they went in.”
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Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Anita Singh said McGovern has “wider points to make about the system, including the decision to keep the mentally ill in jail rather than psychiatric units”.
Katie Rosseinsky wrote in the Evening Standard that the show combines “unbearable sadness” with “glimmers of redemption”.
She said: “It’s bleak stuff, and there’s a sense of grim, almost tragic inevitability to many of the stories that unfurl over the course of three episodes, especially Eric’s (made all the more wrenching by Graham’s measured performance).
“Yet amid all this grey, moments of unbearable sadness sometimes make way for glimmers of redemption.
“These flashes of hope in the gloom, along with the carefully handled, humanising glimpses into the back stories of a handful of other inmates, make this classic McGovern.”
Writing for Metro.co.uk, Billie Schwab Dunn said: “Each performance is incredibly powerful and, even though the programme is fictional, it is very much grounded in realism.
“Time is a necessary lesson on the British prison system and a masterclass in acting.”
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