Sunday 22 January 2017

Taboo by Steven Knight

Regular readers may be aware of my admiration for the British screenwriter Steven Knight. He's not always as his best when adopting other writers' material, as in the disappointing Burnt, but his original screenplays for Allied and Locke were stunningly good. (Not to mention Eastern Promises.)

The new BBC TV series Taboo is largely Steven Knight's work, thought it's based on an idea by Tom Hardy's father, and both Hardys are credited as co-creators. It tells the story of James Delaney, missing and presumed dead in Africa, who returns to London on the death of his father in 1814 to claim his inheritance.

This includes a piece of land — essentially Vancouver Island which is of crucial strategic importance to the East India Company, who are willing to kill Delaney to get it.

The series is produced by Ridley Scott's company and is visually sumptuous and drenched in period atmosphere, but then we'd expect that from the BBC for an historical drama.

The first episode was rapturously good. It was packed with dark drama and fascinating detail — including testing the contents of a corpse's stomach for arsenic. 

I was riveted, and delighted to have found something on British TV which compelled me to tune in each week. (The last time that happened was Wolf Hall.)

The impressive cast includes the alluring Oona Chaplin as Delaney's half sister, a supremely sinister Jonathan Pryce at the helm of the East India Company and Franka Potente (Run Lola Run and the Bourne movies) as a whore with a heart of gold ("You have kind eyes", Delaney tells her). That last character, perhaps, is not entirely breaking new ground...

Unfortunately, the second episode of Taboo was a considerably more shaky affair. It was distinctly thin on plot, suggesting that this eight part series would have been better at six or perhaps even four episodes.

There was also too much swearing. This isn't a moral objection, it's just a fact that if you use a lot of profanity it loses its impact. Instead of saving the F-bombs for crucial bits of dialogue, this script just scattered them everywhere.

The episode also wasn't helped by a lurid turn from Mark Gatiss as the Prince Regent. But the story rallied towards the end, with a new claimant to Delaney's birthright turning up out of the woodwork.

Last night's third episode rallied considerably, with a mercifully brief appearance by the Prince Regent, rather too much swearing still, but some fun dialogue ("Mr Delaney is outside with guns and a cannibal"). Finger crossed that this show lives up to its brilliant opening. 

(Image credits: the stylish poster is from Imp Awards. Tom Hardy with top hat and red stripe on his face is from Digital Spy.  Hardy in the rain is from What's On TV. The on-location shot is from — forgive me — The Daily Mail. The others are from the BBC's official website.)


  1. Like you Andrew, I'm a big fan of Knight. I watched the first two episodes (I missed last night's) and the jury is out so far. I think you've nailed it when you said episode two seemed rather shaky and plotwise a bit thin on the ground. Too much of the 60 minutes were devoted to dark, ominous scenes that actually went nowhere. I must admit to finding it so far really rather elusive and I'm not at all sure just what I am watching. I also agree about the swearing; I'm no prude, but it just seems really unnecessary - much like Gatiss' Carry On/Blackadder cameo

  2. Laughing out loud at the "Black Adder/Carry On" remark! I thought episode 3 was a lot more solid, which raises hopes. Meanwhile I am loving Peaky Blinders.

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