The latest costume drama from the BBC is Taboo, broadcast at peak TV time – Saturday nights – but it is no Jane Austen. It is dark, mysterious and magical, closer to Bleak House than Pride and Prejudice.
Set in 1814, Taboo stars Tom Hardy as James Delaney, a man returning to Britain after 12 years in Africa. His father is dead and the War of Independence with America is nearing its end. He has 14 stolen diamonds in his possession, a tan (unusual in grimy 1814 London) and enough body art to justify calling the programme Tattoo, not Taboo. Delaney has come to claim his inheritance, a strip of land on the newly formed US-Canadian border. This feat proves harder than expected due to the land’s invaluable importance to both Britain and America. Therefore, you can expect several run ins with the East India Company and its cunning and evil head Sir Stuart Strange, played by Jonathan Pryce.
In his ragged Bill Sykes-like overcoat and borderline ridiculous top hat, Delaney is a menacing presence. He is a man on a mission. The involvement of magic in this mission, with his chanting of oaths or curses in an undefined foreign tongue, provides more interest than a straightforward costume drama.
Delaney’s shady past involving slavery adds further mystery, and raises the question of whether he is a corrupt man, or more admirable than first believed.
The series was co-created by Tom Hardy himself, with his father and Steven Knight, explaining why it seems to be an advert for Hardy’s acting ability and toughness. And although I don’t know what is going on, Hardy himself is very watchable. This is despite his incomprehensible mumbles and seemingly changing accent which required me to rewind a few times.
The three-dimensionality of James Delaney’s character can’t be said to have spread to many others in the show, least of all the women. Within the first two episodes, all female characters seem to take part in incest or prostitution, with only minor speaking roles. Hopefully, the introduction of a new female character at the end of the second episode may change that.
These first few episodes contain a combination of drama, violence, and also moments of humour. There is a touching scene during which a criminal with a compass tattooed on his bald head shows a keen interest in African wildlife, asking Delaney about the largest and smallest animals he’d seen on his travels abroad. The grit, scandal and Hardy himself make this an enjoyable show for even those who don’t like conventional costume dramas. Taboo has very high production values, not to mention the very impressive recreation of pre-Victorian London. So, if you fancy a small taste of Georgian Regency noir on a winter’s evening, it is certainly worth a viewing.
Image: Paul Mellon Collection via Wikimedia Commons