Review: Taboo – Episode 1

January 10, 2017

Whether you’re a historical drama fan, a doomed devotee of twisted anti-heroes or just a poor soul lost to the cult of Tom Hardy, Taboo is an exciting new show. With a debut last Saturday night on BBC One, this eight part series is the passion project of its star and a true family affair. The first episode wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was a captivating take on a brutal period of our country’s history, with a little of the supernatural thrown in for good measure.

The plot follows the return of ex-soldier James Delaney (Tom Hardy) to London in 1814. Previously been presumed dead for many years, his father is now dead, and his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) has been fiercely protecting what’s left of his estate. The most crucial piece is a valuable plot of land in war torn foreign lands, which the East India Trading Company have been desperately trying to purchase for their own political ambitions. Leading the company keen to take James’ birthright is Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), and James must face both the formidable challenges he presents, as well as the trauma of a murky, villainous past.

This period drama is quite different from many BBC dramas in two ways. Firstly, it’s not based on a novel, and secondly, the screenplay was written and developed by a writer without a long history with the BBC. In fact, the original story is a creation of Tom Hardy and his father Edward ‘Chips’ Hardy. The younger Hardy created the character of James Delaney first, an anti-hero with the combined qualities of Bill Sykes, Heathcliff and Sherlock Holmes. His father, who has previously written comedic television, then developed the series and the finished product was presented to Ridley Scott. With the backing of one of the most influential men in the international film industry, it’s no wonder that this original idea has clinched the Saturday night BBC One spot.

It’s certainly an intriguing first episode that is beautifully shot. The budget behind the series becomes most apparent in the vast stretches of 19th century London docklands, created with detail and vision. We know little about the characters as yet – a brief flashback lent us a small look at Delaney’s mysterious time abroad, whilst inflections in writing and muttered words suggest a complex relationship between Delaney and his half-sister. Other than that, it was a highly effective set up, dropping us clues with just the right amount to provoke us to follow. Intriguingly for a historical drama, it also has a supernatural air, as ghosts haunt the anti-hero with an inescapable presence.

One early issue however, is that the dialogue doesn’t always ring true to the time period. Whether it’s odd words or quite a bit of profanity, something about the script feels a little anachronistic. Part of this may be down to the elder Hardy’s lack of experience in writing period dramas, so it may have benefited from a brief check by another more seasoned writer of the genre to ensure that the script doesn’t lift viewers away from the characters and the action.

Despite this flaw, the first episode of Taboo was an exciting start to a luxuriously stretched eight-part drama. As the performances get more screen time and the plot developments reveal themselves, the strength of the original story will be tested but if it’s anything like the initial hour, this will be an unconventional and addictive period drama to look forward to every week.

More about Jen Scouler

Jen Scouler is a magazine journalist, film critic and the founder of Lost In Drama. With degrees in both English Literature and Digital Journalism, she has experience of writing for popular print and online publications. Jen is also devoted to her metaphorical novelist aunties - Aunt Jane, Charlotte and Jo are particular favourites - and is usually found with an Earl Grey tea in hand.

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