Review: Taboo (Series 1, Episode 1)

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The first episode of Taboo promises much for the rest of the series.

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BBC One’s new Saturday night drama offering, Taboo, has quite the impressive backstage (and on-screen) cast – not only does Tom Hardy lead star the show, he also produces it, alongside his father Chips Hardy, and the creator of Taboo‘s sibling in grim TV – Peaky Blinders‘ Steven Knight.

Set in 1814, the show stars Tom Hardy as James Delaney, a former East India Company soldier with a somewhat gruesome, if comical, reputation (in his youth he seems to have begun several riots involving custard). Delany returns from Africa, where he was thought dead in a shipwreck, to find his own father dead, generally thought as a result of insanity, and himself the sole inheritor of his father’s shipping empire and lands in America.

The first episode of the series was clearly designed to impress, with grand sweeping CGI vistas of grimy nineteenth century London abounding. Unsurprisingly for a drama written and created by Steven Knight, the drama offers a gritty uncompromising view of the past, so those expecting a Downton Abbey style period drama will be shocked.

Tom Hardy has thrown himself into the role of Delaney, a character he describes as “part Hamlet, there’s Oedipus in there, there’s Heart of Darkness…. There’s lots of different stories”. Hardy shines in his new role, playing the dark and troubled character well, and promising much for the rest of the series. Delaney is the antihero, taking on the troubled nineteenth century establishment. Hardly promises much in saying that as the series develops, his character “seems insane, crazy evil, wrong… and then we find out that he’s probably the sanest, most honest man in the room and everybody else, the bastions and pillars of society, are wearing masks.”

The first episode of Taboo feels very much like a set-up for the rest of the series, and thus moves slowly in places. The scenes between Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin) and her mildly menacing husband Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall) prove to be tedious; there are only so many scenes where Geary broodingly threatens Zilpha about the fate of her brother, should he remain in England, that the fifty-five minute episode could bear. If the first episode is anything to go by, there will more than likely be an inevitable showdown between Hall’s character and Hardy’s – though one suspects Hardy’s Delaney may come out on top of that confrontation.

The drama features several big names in an attempt to draw the audience in, but few of them other than Hardy really stand out at this point. Chaplin (Game of Thrones) appears purely as a simpering downtrodden wife, though like Hardy, her character is more than likely to develop with a dark undertone as the series progresses.

As the series name suggests, Taboo tackles many of the less-spoken of world issues. Imperial history, particularly that of the East India Company and slavery, is rarely depicted in drama, for fear of appearing vitriolic or glorifying the mistakes of the past. Taboo tackles these issues head on. It is made clear from the start that James Delany has spent ten years in Africa, shady to say the least, with his time there beginning after being shipwrecked on a slave ship. Delaney appears haunted by his past, experiencing several flashbacks in the first episode, which speak of both a possible remorse and redemption for his character – as well as a possible supernatural twist for the drama.

Though slow to build, with a complex plot and script, the first episode of Taboo promises much for the rest of the series. I expected Taboo to be as lively and fast paced as Peaky Blinders, and in this I was disappointed; however, given time and several episodes to explore both the plot and the haunting past of the characters, this may still prove to be the case. Hardy, as always, excels in his role as Delaney, whilst Steven Knight’s script proves to be both funny and gritty. Taboo makes a promising start, and is a vibrant and gripping addition to the BBC’s Saturday evening schedule – if the first episode is anything to go by, nothing will be ‘taboo’ in this series.

Taboo continues next Saturday on BBC One.

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