Taboo premiered in the UK in the first week of January on BBC One, and became an instant critical success. There some early reports that it was going to be a big flop for Tom Hardy, but it’s since been renewed for a second season, so that mustn’t be the case. It would’ve been a real shame if that wasn’t the case, because Taboo is one of the most instantly fascinating pieces of televised drama to come out in a time where there is so much TV drama that it’s hard to keep up.
Tom Hardy plays James Keziah Delaney, a Kurtz-like figure a la Heart of Darkness, who has returned from epic journeys in Africa and has done truly unspeakable things while out in the bush. His father has recently died but everyone believes James is also dead, so when he returns it’s a great shock. His father has left him Nootka Sound, an island in the Pacific Northwest of America.
Father and son have made plenty of enemies at home and abroad, so soon James gets thrown into a world of conspiracy and the proto-multinational corporation that was The East India Company. The “Honorable” East India Company is led by Jonathan Pryce’s Sir Stuart Strange, who turns in a suitably twisted performance that is perhaps his finest since Brazil. The show has everything, including brutal murder, prostitution, cross-dressing, betrayal, slavery and cannibalism.
However, it is really Tom Hardy’s show in every way: he put his own money, and he conceived it with his father and Steven Knight, with whom he has worked before on Locke and Peaky Blinders. He is an actor who can issue menace like no other, but like any great actor he can also display vulnerability when needed. This role doesn’t have much of that, but does have its moments. He is on screen for the majority of the series’ eight hours as well, and even when off-screen his presence is still felt.
Despite wearing influences like Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, and gangster and western films on its sleeve, Taboo feels like a wholly original tale. It’s dark, gripping, and despite being set in Georgian London, it’s a show that might have something to say about the current political and corporate world. It’s utterly thrilling for its eight hours, taking viewers on a real descent into the heart of darkness without sugarcoating it one bit. It also has some excellent supporting turns from an unrecognizable Mark Gatiss, Stephen Graham and Michael Kelly, to name just a few.
The release is barebones, which is a real shame because I’m sure that how they created early 18th century London would be a fascinating watch. There is a lengthy interview with Tom Hardy on the genesis and production of the show.