Taboo episode 1 review: Shovels And Keys

Tom Hardy plays an amalgam of nineteenth century leads in grimy, intriguing new BBC period drama Taboo…

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Shovels And Keys

Despite my rule about avoiding any TV show that could share its name with a provincial nightclub or a bottle of perfume won in a church tombola, Taboo proved too irresistible a prospect. It’s produced by Ridley Scott, written by Steven Knight, and stars Tom Hardy. (The last pair’s previous collaboration resulted in 2014’s excellent Locke and recurring Peaky Blinders character Alfie Solomons, the toughest man to wear a baker’s apron since Mr Kipling chinned the Pillsbury Dough Boy.)

Knight developed Taboo from an idea originated by Hardy and his father. To hear them tell it, that idea was to bundle up every male lead in nineteenth century literature into one fearsome package: James Keziah Delaney. Part-Bill Sykes, part-Magwitch, part-Heathcliff, part-Sherlock Holmes and part-Marlow from Heart Of Darkness, Delaney is more myth than man.

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He’s more hat than anything else in episode one. In truth, there’s no-one he resembles so much as Steven Knight’s other inscrutable TV lead, Peaky Blinders’ laconic Thomas Shelby. Like Shelby, Delaney stalks purposefully through his city, wrapped in the armour of his own reputation, sticking two fingers up at the establishment and always staying at least two steps ahead of everyone else.

It’s a different city this time, not 1920s Birmingham but 1814 London. At the exact moment Jane Austen’s ladies are wittily insulting each other’s bonnet feathers, Delaney is stomping along the muddy banks of the Thames, pushing past chicken-plucking wenches, brothel madams and toothless blacksmiths in his pursuit of… what?

His father’s killer, we learn by the end of the hour. After a spot of Frankenstein-ish grave-digging, Delaney discovers that his “mad, old bastard” of a dad was poisoned with arsenic. Now he doesn’t only have his inheritance to deal with, but also a case to solve.

That inheritance may well have been the motivation for the murder. Delaney’s father left him 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.

There doesn’t seem to be much Delaney doesn’t well know. He’s dully omniscient for a recent returnee to our shores. He’s privy to the secrets of international politics and those of his own family, including the fact that his mother, a Bertha Rochester type, was purchased by his father in exchange for gunpowder along with her people’s land. We don’t know how he found out the former, but the latter appears to have reached him through supernatural means courtesy of his father’s riverside fire-talking.

After a decade in Africa where Delaney “done a lot of evil”, evidently he also done a lot of learning. Enough to speak Twi, hear words spoken thousands of miles away, and pick up native practices that mark him out as exotically Other in Regency England (there’s the Heathcliff box ticked). Is it all talk though? He may be surrounded by the fug of rumour about his devilish behaviour but unlike the respectable men cavorting with prostitutes at his ill-loved father’s wake, we don’t see Delaney transgress any moral boundaries in the first episode. Well, perhaps one.

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Like Lord Byron, Delaney has a thing for his stately, married half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), and judging by her shock at his return, the feeling’s mutual. Thanks to the fine work desensitising TV-viewing audiences to squeamishness about incest done by Chaplin’s former show, Game Of Thrones, that’s hardly a hanging offence. To live up to his reputation, we’re going to need to see Delaney make good on one of his threats and cut off someone’s trotters before these eight episodes are up.

The one thing Delaney doesn’t know, of course, is who did for his dad. My money’s on butler Brace. As the only person in London Delaney says he can trust, the law of the whodunit declares it must be him, despite him being the only person we’ve met lacking a motive.

Taboo depicts the period with more gristle than we’ve come to expect from Regency drama. Knight’s script lays bare the racism of the age, and is peppered with arse and fuck and cock and piss, while The Killing director Krystoffer Nyholm captures enough mud and insalubriousness in one Wapping wharf to fill an entire rainy Glastonbury festival.

Nyholm’s main job though, is to make Tom Hardy look mythic, something assisted by the inches added by that stovepipe hat. It’s all about giving his character presence. We first see a hooded Delaney arriving in London by row-boat, then a horse-back Delaney riding at a gallop, then Delaney stalking down a church aisle, his appearance so disturbing that polite society ladies may as well be fainting in the pews.

So far though, we know so little of the man himself that it feels as though everybody’s shrinking away from an empty space. That’s the job of the next seven weeks; to fill in the blank with a character who’s more than a creature stitched together from parts dug up in a literary graveyard. 

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Taboo airs on FX on Tuesday the 10th of January in the US. In the UK, it continues on Saturday the 14th of January on BBC One at 9.15pm.