“I have a use for you.” This phrase, growled with a lovely lilt on the vowels, that actor Tom Hardy seems to have imbibed direct from Welsh boyos Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, has become a catchphrase amongst those of us who have loved Taboo, the television drama whose first series has just come to an open-ended conclusion on BBC1. Hardy’s brooding central character, James Keziah Delaney, is a sometime sailor returned back from the dead to an 1814 London richly conceived in graphic novel fashion.
Taboo is available for free streaming in the UK on BBC iPlayer until 27 March 2017, for online purchase from Amazon Video, BBC Store and iTunes now, and on DVD and Blu-ray from 27 May 2017.
By that I mean that what’s most striking about Taboo is its peculiar iconography, beginning with the profile James Delaney cuts as he remorselessly prowls the Regency city and its docklands (the less-often depicted pre-Dickensian London) in search of his due. Beefy and tattooed, he wears a stove-pipe hat that’s wilted slightly, a long black coat unbuttoned and with shoulder-wide grey fur lapels that seems to absorb his neck entire, a collarless shirt and an open weskit. The whole flappy ensemble yearns to be inked with that obsessive attention to the shadows of drapery only graphic novel artists care about.
Delaney is the son of recently deceased entrepreneur Horace, whose bequests to his son and daughter (half-siblings) are a creaky old house, a traumatised manservant, Brace (David Hayman), and the rights to a strategically vital strip of land on Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, of strategic interest to the British Crown, the East India Company and the United States of America, with whom Britain is at war – though peace talks are under way.
All of these competing interests are represented by human examples of perfidy easily encapsulated in scenes more designed to cut a still figure and mood than to depict action. Thus the Prince Regent (Mark Gatiss) is a disgusting angry glutton in rich garb, greedy for power and often spinning a globe in his hands. His private secretary Solomon Coop (Jason Watkins) looks like a younger Clive Anderson in high collar and cravat – his eyes light up whenever he’s required to gloat, do someone down or order torture at the Tower of London.
As Jonathan Pryce plays him, Sir Stuart Strange, head of the East India Co., is a ruthless ultracapitalist braggart, always boasting about how he’s going to humiliate Delaney, but nearly always being outmanoeuvred. Strange is surrounded by high-nosed fawning fops who do his bidding, though not nearly ruthlessly enough. The key American spy is Dr. Edgar Dumbarton (Michael Kelly), a scholarly know-all who practices surgery as I suppose they did back then, with an utter disregard for infection.
Another graphic-novel element is how the series delves into Delaney’s past. His mother was a Native American, and he has spent time with the tribe, picking up shamanistic powers that he puts to use to possess his married half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), with whom he is still in love after an incestuous adolescence. (Her various elegant costumes tend towards comic-book gothic.) Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), Zilpha’s vile English insurance salesman husband, knows this and seethes with thoughts of revenge. Delaney himself is haunted with visions of his seemingly monstrous mother standing in a river and of himself drowning. We learn too that he survived the wreckage of a slave ship in which all the slaves were prevented from abandoning ship.
Indeed layer after layer of sub-plot and sub-intrigue, character after character, has been woven into Taboo. There’s enigmatic actress Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley), who married Horace before he died and seems determined to tie her fate to Delaney’s for no obvious reason; fatalistic genius chemist and maker of gunpowder Dr. George Cholmondeley (Tom Hollander); and Michael Godfrey (Edward Hogg), who takes minutes at East India Company meetings and has a separate life as a Molly House whore offering transvestite pleasures.
What’s most satisfying about this fine-tissued narrative is the way it keeps shifting, the way it takes on the excitements of, say, an Alexandre Dumas novel without quite ever going pell-mell for breathless derring do. Delaney, constantly at the centre, is himself ever-shifting – in garb, in attitude, in intransigence. You could say that the whole series is about his indeterminacy. He is a revenant of sorts, again in graphic novel tradition, a figure out of the past who seems invulnerable, even when being waterboarded (yes, the series does reach for its contemporary resonances). The growling voice of pain with that lilt is so memorable. The odd thing is Hardy isn’t Welsh himself – he’s from Hammersmith – but then the series itself is about the fate of people estranged from their tribes.
The series revels in scenes of stygian gloom, of daylight penetrating foetid interiors. Costume in general could not be further away from the chocolate box, yet it is not always grimy (though the incidence of gangrene in wounds being mopped by dirty rags is, I suggest, rather low). Though there’s plenty of mockery of the rich and powerful, the series would always rather be dreaming with the mudlarks, and its nightmares are all about how much of the city’s wealth has come from slavery. It’s as though Hardy, his screenwriter father Edward ‘Chips’ Hardy and writer Steven Knight took as their motto Marlowe’s warning about the Thames in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that “this too has been one of the dark places of the earth.”