Distinctly British and anti-establishment, this BBC drama taps into literary heritage without losing pulp visuality

David G. Hughes on Kristoffer Nyholm’s & Anders Engström’s ‘Taboo’ (2017)

Is it liberal paranoia to suggest that a rampant post-Brexit obsession with past and heritage is becoming increasingly more demonstrable on British screens, both at home and in the local cinema? Nostalgia, tacit and explicit and with considerable impetus, is colonialising the mood and discourse of our visual culture industry, reflecting the conservative nature of our political zeitgeist. Whilst it’s undeniably true that this constitutional monarchy of ours has always peddled posh boy biopics starring Eton grads and TV standard royal drivel like The Queen (2006) or the ghastly William and Kate: The Movie (2011), more often or not, these unexceptional films felt like export material made in consideration to the American gaze and the Academy, which dutifully rewarded its cross-Atlantic jester with golden statues. However, we now seem to be entering a situation in which we’ve let reality loose and are buying into our own fabricated fluff; increasingly, we (mis)comprehend our nation by peering at it through the window of prosperity, aristocracy and antiquity, with recent and upcoming releases including patriotic World War II dramas (Dunkirk), multiple Winston Churchill biopics (Darkest Hour), more royal rubbernecking (Victoria & Abdul) and SAS adventurism (6 Days). On the surface, this seems to amount to nothing more than an adaptation of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster maxim, once used as a call for war-time reserve now re-appropriated as a pro-austerity slogan.

Thankfully, the BBC have aired an antidote to this Downton Abbey-isation of British culture. Taboo, produced by Tom Hardy, his father Edward “Chips” Hardy and Steven Knight, rejects rose-tinted representations of history in favour of filth, disease, poverty, corruption, violence and vice. In the view of Taboo, this was London 1814, and its chief export – the British Empire – was a scourge on human decency. In a political zeitgeist such as ours, where post-colonial Brits desire Empire 2.0, war with Spain, and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is Foreign Secretary, it’s incredible that such an anti-authoritarian show could emerge. Here is an engrossing series that see’s authority and aristocrats not as noble or romantic, but as grotesque tyrant royals, morally bankrupt traders and political bullies.

The show concerns the return to London of mysterious anti-hero James Delaney (Hardy), a “savage” man thought dead after spending twelve years in colonial Africa. Delaney is a mixture of a tempestuous Brontë brooder, Conrad’s Marlow from Heart of Darkness (1899), Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Dickens’ Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist (1838). He is a product of a distinctly British literary tradition, but the sort of tradition that shines a light on the dark corners of British destitution and power. Mad in the eye, animal in his growl and smart in his head, Delaney returns to London as a man with a plan—to go to war with the British establishment whose “conquest, rape and plunder” has brought countless misery of which Delaney was once a part.

Front and centre of this vice is the East India Company, the sinister British trading company that has monopolised half of the world’s trade. It is headed by Sir Stuart Strange, a man prone to bulging fits of rage and cussing vernacular played salaciously by Jonathan Pryce. His garrulous rants are juxtaposed with Delaney’s taciturn and monosyllabic reserve (who grunts most of the time to avoid chit-chat in a manner destined for YouTube montage). As it is, Delaney is always a cryptic and fascinating character to spend time with, his motivations and grand scheme being about as clear as the duplicitous smog-infested world he descends into. Only in his most private and vulnerable moments, usually inebriated and in dark contemplation across a large fireplace, are we given access to his fractured psychology, where unsettling flashbacks of drowning, violence and Shamanism show a PTSD sufferer, whose morality is far from clear-cut.​

Taboo burns slowly like a candle, gradually building character and backstory and revealing the complex plot in good time, avoiding hook bait revelations in favour of nibbling curiosity and intrigue. Its refusal to pander can be frustrating in such a nebulous world, but it’s also deeply refreshing and richly rewarding. In other words, Taboo is a show with courage — unafraid to trust your intelligence, explore Britain’s dark past, including its relationship to slavery, and the darker side of human nature. Our “hero” is certainly a bad man, a King of the Underworld who recruits murderers and prostitutes as guerrilla help and has a penchant for incest and gratuitous disembowelment. Despite all of this, he is the character we root for because he is the only man without a mask, whilst the institutionally evil British establishment coax their barbarism and savagery in décor and decorum, what Conrad describes as “surface-truths.” Delaney is a Frankenstein Creature, an aberration created by the horror of conquest who subsequently comes back to haunt those who created his damaged existence. With a fabulous costume design and a performance full of gravitas, Hardy is proving to be the screens most impressive physical performer, his commanding gait and deadly stare emerging as the definitive image of the show, especially when delivering lines such as “The things I did in Africa make your transactions look paltry. I witnessed and participated in darkness that you cannot perceive,” with such steely seriousness that you don’t know whether to laugh in excitement or sweat in nervousness.

Taboo walks the line, finding a sweet spot between over-the-top genre camp and “issue”-orientated sincerity whilst always working as perfect pulp entertainment. This Gothic conspiracy noir recalls Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel From Hell, the macabre writings of Edgar Allan Poe and the stylish morbidity of Hammer Horror features; it is unashamedly wild and weird fiction, featuring incest, cannibalism, voodoo witchcraft, plenty of naked Tom Hardy and fog-filled London alleyways. It’s certainly not for everyone, in fact one suspects that many won’t be able to see Taboo beyond parody and unrelenting obscurantism, but it is also distinctly British and operatic, a synthesis of our greatest literary traditions with visual magnetism and a pointed look at the dangers of historical revisionism. Those willing to look into the abyss and go with this stylish and intelligent show will be vastly rewarded in return.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.