Aidan Smith's TV Week: Time (BBC1), Smother (Alibi), Intelligence (Sky 1)

Sorry, Chris Lang - love your work on Unforgotten. Apologies to Sally Wainwright, too - Happy Valley is brilliant. And of course Michaela Coel clutching that well-deserved Bafta - I May Destroy You was my favourite of last year. But Britain’s best telly dramatist is still Jimmy McGovern.

Val (Dervla Kirwan) from Smother. Picture: BBC Studios/RTÉ Ireland/Martin
Val (Dervla Kirwan) from Smother. Picture: BBC Studios/RTÉ Ireland/Martin

He’s done a brilliant thing with Time (BBC1). Taken a prison and plonked a middle-class man in there.

I’m sure that’s been done before, but this three-parter makes it seem ground-breaking thanks to McGovern’s searing script – not a word wasted or sounding like speechifying or anything less than real – and Sean Bean’s performance.

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As Mark, first time inside, he’s absolutely terrified. When he hears a noise – usually the everyday screams of one jailbird reminding another who actually runs the place – he jumps.

The cast of Friends from the reunion special, including (second from right) David Schwimmer. Picture: Terence Patrick/HBO Max/PA Wire

He’s a big man, but a quiet soul. A schoolteacher on the outside and, you’re probably thinking, a good one.

“What you doing?” he’s asked, not in a confrontational way, but to establish the length of his sentence at Craigmore (four years).

“I killed a man,” he explains, probably while driving, possibly while over the limit. This will doubtless become apparent if you’ve watched the whole series but, just as Mark’s time in the exercise yard is strictly regulated and he only ever has the stomach for a cheese roll for lunch, I’m confining myself to one episode per week.

Among his fellow cons there’s cell-mate Bernard, a mad conspiracy theorist who cuts himself to ribbons, while Brendan’s a friendly guy with the job of clearing up the blood.

Sean and and Stephen Graham in the brilliant Time

Out in the yard, watching the repetitive behaviour, Brendan comes out with a classic McGovern gag: “North of the equator we all walk clockwise and south of it prisoners walk anti-clockwise. There’s a jail in Uganda right on the equator and it’s absolute chaos.”

But Johnno is the bully who scalds those he suspects of being snitches with boiling water – sugar making the punishment even more painful.

Johnno steals Mark’s cheese rolls and phone-time. Mark tries to reason with him like he would an unruly pupil, which of course doesn’t work.

“You should have hit him,” says another inmate. “But I’m a teacher,” says Mark. “Your life in here won’t be worth living then.”

Stephen Graham plays Eric, one of the officers, a decent sort, and while the story hasn’t yet brought him and Mark together, you rather suspect it will.

Eric has an issue to sort out. His son is banged up in another jail and, to ensure a “comfy” stay, Eric must arrange some privileges at Craigmore.

The cast is terrific and features – from the McGovern repertory company – Sue Johnston, David Calder, Cal MacAninch and Brian McCardie.

The violence is chilling, but what really gets you is the sheer, unending boredom of jail, shot here in 50 shades of the grottiest grey.

When the clanking door is opened on Mark’s cell, he’s usually squeezed into a tiny chair. Doubtless he’s been sat there for hours. Prison, it seems, brutalises everyone.

Now a first. I hadn’t watched anything on Albi before Smother.

Is the channel so called because every character in its dramas needs one? That seems to be the case in Kate O’Riordan’s thriller, which begins with a 50th birthday party for Dervla Kirwan’s Val.

It’s a dark and stormy night on Ireland’s west coast and not much more hospitable inside the house.

There’s an atmosphere. Edgy, nervy glances abound. Every single guest seems to have an issue with someone.

A new arrival stands at the door, maybe they’ll be made to feel more welcome … nope. Who the heck sent out those invites? Call yourself a party planner? Then the next morning Val’s husband Denis is found dead.

Admittedly Denis brought the bash to a juddering halt by announcing the couple’s divorce. He’d been a terrible womaniser, even bedding Val’s best friend, but was all of this good enough reason to bounce him down the Co Clare cliffs, especially since Val’s new, younger man is hardly a secret and was at the party from hell?

There are three grown-up daughters. Grace, who suffers from mental illness, probably still loves her ex who’s marrying someone else and becoming a dad and is off her medication when she walks straight into the sea.

Anna is involved in a custody battle with her husband’s ex, who stalls on signing the papers when she sees him assault one of their sons. And Jenny? She just wishes she had a storyline half as juicy as these ones.

So I should be gripped, but I’m not. I should be earnestly speculating with my dear wife which “gobsh***” – spiffing Irish term of abuse – is the murderer, but instead I’m cracking jokes about Prof Plum and Col Mustard both entering the frame in next week’s episodes. Smother smothers with its slowness.

The recent Friends reunion was a reminder of the genius of that comedy and, hardly surprisingly, how difficult it has been for the stars to come close to matching it – and for all David Schwimmer’s endearing goofiness, Intelligence (Sky 1) confirms that the struggle continues.

This is the second season of his spook from America’s National Security Agency being seconded to GCHQ.

In the opener he has to remember a dessert-themed password to halt a cyber attack on a nuclear site.

Now surely when he read the “spotted dick” gag in the script a little part of him died. They never served that at Central Perk.

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