I was a late comer to Steven Knight’s mega-hit Peaky Blinders. I had stupidly dismissed it as style over substance. It wasn’t until the buzz began when it returned last year that I thought I have to give it another go. I raced through the first two series, fully immersed in the world of the Blinders and by the start of the third series it’s fair to say I was an utter obsessive.
You can imagine my excitement when the BBC announced Knight’s new series came from the mind of Tom Hardy and his father Chips. Taboo begins promisingly with a hooded figure rowing solo in a boat, then traveling by horse, we don’t anything about Hardy’s character but these opening moments aim to show the audience he’s a man on a mission. It soon transpires that Hardy’s James Keziah Delaney is returning home after his father’s death. James Keziah Delaney is an intimidating presence, rumours and myth swirl around him about how dangerous and infamous he is. Even in its opening moments it’s clear Delaney lives up to every one of them. His unexpected entrance at his father’s funeral leads to immediate whispers and an audible gasp from his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin). No one could accuse Hardy of not giving it 100% Every word he speaks seems to crawl unwillingly from the back of his throat. He walks as if wearing a suit of amour and he glares at anyone he passes.
We learn by the end of this episode that his father was poisoned and that he has left his son a stretch of land in the Pacific called Nootka Sound, which, try as the East India Company might to convince Delaney of its worthlessness, is a significant global asset in a time of war, something he well knows. This is the reason Delaney has returned from his mysterious journey. When speaking of the land his father’s lawyer informs Delaney that, “if America were a pig facing England, it is right at the pig’s arse”. A brilliant piece of dialogue. The whole first episode has these little nuggets of great and unexpected dialogue that kept me interested when I got a little confused about where Knight and co were actually taking the story. There are hints that Keziah and his half-sister may have an incestuous relationship as she seems to be the only person this bruit of a man seems to have any affection for, much to the disgust of her husband. There a there are hints that Delaney time away in Africa has left scars and that’s he haunted by some of what he’s seen and done in the last decade.
Did I actually enjoy Taboo? I’m not entirely sure really. There were bits of I really enjoyed. The bits of dialogue that the cast seemed to relish delivering. You also can’t help but be drawn in by Tom Hardy’s performance as our brooding lead. When he’s on screen I was completely in his world, unable to look away. But then, other bits were so ridiculous that I couldn’t let myself be fully taken in. Hardy throws everything he has at his character but at times it feels a little forced and cartoonish. I also didn’t like not knowing what I was watching. If this had been a show on a streaming service I would’ve had to watch the next one just to get a real sense of where the plot was going as I don’t believe Knight and co gave any indication as to what story it was there were going to be telling. There was a strange paranormal element to the plot that I couldn’t quite get onboard with either but that might be the way Delaney’s demons manifest themselves.
The biggest head-scratcher here is the scheduling. The BBC’s decision to place this after Casualty on a Saturday night sits somewhere between utterly bonkers and brilliantly brave. I can’t remember the last time the BBC launched a drama on Saturday night and this certainly isn’t family viewing but they’re clearly proud of having Hardy lead a BBC drama so why not put it in a peculiar place and hope Hardy’s name brings millions to it.
Given the caliber of all involved I’d be nutty to give up on this. I didn’t love it, but I saw the makings of something very interesting. I didn’t find it dragged, but I wanted more explanation of what the story was. If Tom Hardy is still skulking around looking menacing in the next episode and we still learn nothing about what Taboo actually is then I might have to rethink it. I just don’t want to dismiss this as stupidly quickly as I did Peaky Blinders.
Taboo Continues Saturday at 9.10pm on BBC ONE