Taboo TV review: the grime and gloss of an imperial wrecking ball

Tom Hardy, a genetic stalemate between beauty and brutishness, is picking a fight with the British empire in the BBC’s new antihero vehicle

With a hard, heavy footstep, a menacing sway, and eyes shadowed by the brim of his incongruously dainty tapered top hat, Tom Hardy's new character James Delaney enters every room like a brawler spoiling for a fight.

It doesn’t matter who he finds there: even his dead father, the unlamented owner of a shipping company who died insane, seems to come in for a drubbing. “Forgive me father,” Delaney rasps, voice low and long, “for I have indeed sinned.” You have to admire that emphasis.

Here is a man attempting to intimidate a cadaver.

So begins Taboo (Saturday, BBC One, 9.15pm), a new gritty period drama from writer Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders, who concocted the series with Hardy and his father Chips Hardy. They don't come much hardier. Nor, it seems, more preposterous. Tom Hardy, a genetic stalemate between beauty and brutishness, presents himself here as a Regency era heavy who prefers slim-fit frock coats. For this we might also thank Ridley Scott's involvement as executive producer, further ensuring a palette that is equal parts grime and gloss.


The time is 1814, the place is London, the plot is uncomplicated and the lead character is basically Batman. People gasp and gawp when they see Delaney. Long supposed dead, he now returns from Africa to claim his inheritance, communicate in gnomic mutters and exhibit a haircut he got from the future.

"Has hell opened up?" swoons his half-sister, and, it transpires, his love interest, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), at his return. If this incestuous undercurrent didn't make him dark enough for an age of anti-heroes, the show amplifies each unsavoury habit to the point of demonisation. What are the rumours, asks television's go-to baddie Jonathan Pryce in the villainous headquarters of rivals the East India Shipping Company. "Awful and unnatural and, I'm sure, untrue," says his informant. Oh, don't be coy.

A taboo is something you can’t talk about, but Taboo’s reticence suggests it doesn’t have all that much to say. The trouble with constantly hinting at a character’s unspeakable complexities is that it quickly tips into silliness. Back at Devaney manor, where James is reunited with his butler and confidante, Bryce, we learn that he is half Native American. Yup, his mother was a Nootka, and so Devaney’s inheritance includes both a strategically important port in the American northwest, Nootka Sound, and, as far as I can determine, either shamanistic powers or paranoid delusions. Neither would trouble him, of course: in the opening episode’s signature moment, Hardy wags an admonishing finger at a reanimated black body, “Don’t you dare stand there and judge me, for today I have work to do.” The zombie relents. Another cadaver knows who’s boss.

It goes without saying that such visions of male competency, apparent invincibility and deep brooding darkness will impress every teenage boy who tuned in. Others will be more fascinated by how a contemporary thriller approaches the legacy of British imperialism, either as an excuse for exotic adventures, or something that nags vaguely at its conscience. Taboo has it both ways, showing us Devaney burying African swag deep in the earth, transcending cultural and spiritual boundaries, and later hectoring the East India Company panjandrums for their conquest, rape and plunder.

Beyond the swagger, grunts and omniscience, though, Hardy’s character is quite inert; it’s like being asked to invest in a period drama about a wrecking ball. He can’t be frightened, can’t be hurt, can’t be bought, and – he proudly insists – can’t be understood: “People who do not know me soon come to understand that I do not have any sense.”

You can’t say he didn’t warn you.