sat 16/11/2019

Taboo, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Taboo, BBC One

Taboo, BBC One

Is this eerie new historical thriller Tom Hardy's own 'Heart of Darkness'?

Tom Hardy as the sinister and enigmatic James Keziah Delaney

The arrival of this oppressively atmospheric 19th-century historical drama is being trailed as the BBC's bold attempt to break the Saturday night stranglehold of soaps and talent shows. No doubt they were encouraged by the success of all those Saturday night Scandi dramas on BBC Four, and if Taboo falls short it won't be because of a lack of stellar names.

Front and centre is Tom Hardy, starring as the previously-presumed-dead James Keziah Delaney who suddenly reappears in London in 1814 at his father's funeral. Hardy is also co-creator (with his dad Chips) and co-producer of Taboo with his company Hardy Son and Baker, in partnership with Ridley Scott's Scott Free outfit. Steven Peaky Blinders Knight is the lead writer, and adorning the cast list are Jonathan Pryce (below) as Sir Stuart Strange, unscrupulous chairman of the East India Company, Oona Chaplin as Delaney's half-sister Zilpha, and Franka Potente (formerly Jason Bourne's girlfriend) as the leering madam of a kind of pop-up brothel by the London docks.James Delaney has spent years roaming the globe, and arrives shrouded in myths about his notorious activities. It looks like the plot is going to pivot on the inheritance which he has returned to London to claim. This consists of a small plot of land called Nootka on the north-west coast of America, currently the subject of a boundary dispute between the warring American and British governments. However, the owner of Nootka may also gain control of Vancouver Island, which was apparently the trade gateway to China. Hence, the rapacious Sir Stuart and his Hogarth-esque retinue of gurning lackeys are desperate to lever the territory from Delaney's grasp. He, however, is treating their increasingly desperate overtures with contempt.

It's a plot with plenty of potential mileage in it, but the look and feel of Taboo is going to be as important as anything that actually happens. From the opening scenes, where a cowled Delaney rowed himself ashore across dark, misty water like Charon, the ferryman of the dead, before digging up some mysterious artefact in the pouring rain, the piece reeked with a quasi-supernatural aura, enhanced by startling flashbacks. In one of these we saw Delaney in a mortuary full of corpses, one of whom proved to be an African zombie ("I know things about the dead," Delaney tells us). Elsewhere, we caught glimpses of a witch-like figure emerging from water, and painted faces of unidentified tribesmen. Delaney, who apparently speaks the Twi language of the Ashanti, himself carries strange marks and tattoos on his body (Oona Chaplin as Zilpha, below).

Judging by a report delivered by one of the East India men, Delaney has been the perpetrator of unnameable horrors and outrages, although we have no idea why or of what nature. We do know that he used to be a soldier in the employ of the East India Company as they wreaked exploitative havoc on the undeveloped world. As he said to Sir Stuart, "I do know the evil that you do because I was once part of it."

This is shaping up as a mixture of Heart of Darkness, Penny Dreadful and Ripper Street, perhaps with some H Rider Haggard for good measure. Can it deliver on its mysterious promises?

The piece reeked with a quasi-supernatural aura, enhanced by startling flashbacks


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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The Nootka territory is in the north-western - not north-eastern - part of North America (if you look at a map, you'll see that Vancouver Island is on the west coast of Canada). I don't know that Vancouver Island was ever considered 'the trade gateway to China' - and I'm a British Columbia historian - but territory in that area was disputed between the British and American governments, before Canada became a country in 1867 and B.C. went from a colony to a Canadian province in 1871.

Quite right Barbara. Why on earth did I write north-east? Thanks for the Nootka info.

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