As always, I have been really very busy this spring but when I haven’t been busy then I have been engrossed in Taboo. It’s set in the Georgian times but to call it a costume drama would be rather selling it short.
Lots of people have perceptions that 19th Century Britain and indeed 16th-21st Century Britain is all a heady mix of Downton Abbey and Notting Hill. If not Downton then perhaps some desperate Dickensian poverty or brutal East London gangs. The truth is that life is always a little bit of both and whilst the 19th Century did indeed enjoy unimaginable wealth and luxury for some and filthy slums for others, what really characterises this century isn’t that or religion or engineering but trade and mercantilism; the pursuit of wealth by big business. It’s not the purvue of 21st century organisations and in fact the most powerful big business the world has ever known is likely to be the Honourable East India Company though their actions were often not quite honourable.
It is in this world that Taboo is set, written by Steven Knight who is most famous for his gritty drama Peaky Blinders set in his native Birmingham of times past.
It’s 1814, and we’re in London when out of a dismal palette of grey skies, mud and darkness appears a forboding hooded figure in a boat on stormy seas. This man is James Delaney. We also swiftly learn he is a thought-to-be-dead son, just returned from Africa, turning up at the funeral of his recently-dead father. Delaney, it transpires, has been left a certain piece of land in the will in British North America, now Canada. The land is highly prized and contested as it is between Britain, America and various other interested parties it is beyond priceless.
This sets up a three-way war: between James Delaney (who is fantastically portrayed by Tom Hardy) who is determined to keep what is his, his half-sister (played by Oona Chaplin, and her husband, who feel they’ve been cheated out of it, and the East India Company, who will do whatever it takes to get it off him.
It’s a thoroughly gripping tale and it quickly becomes apparent that this is not in any way your average period drama.
James Delaney is a man who seemingly divides his time equally between grunting and making death threats, and sports the permanent expression of a man who is permanently chewing a wasp. He makes his way through life by threatening violence and death as well as inflicting it.
In most episodes he can be found stating “I need a ship” and “I have use for you”. Much of his life is also spent striding purposefully through the seedier parts of London in his battered Top Hat to some terrific theme music. He also grunts, a lot. As someone who doesn’t speak very much myself and is quite adept at communciating in a non-verbal manner, I very much appreciate his grunts. Like an animal sound, there are several types of grunts and each has their own meaning. You can see and hear just about every great grunt from James Delaney in the video below.
To get an idea of what James Delaney is like, if you can’t all ready gather then look no further than this summary list of deeds from a lawyer of the East India Company who want to buy the land from him. He has snapped the necks of officers, set fire to a ship “in an experiment with oil and mashed potatoes” , had “a fight with a bear in Chancery Lane”, tried to trade with Red Indians, plotted to steal gold from the Aztecs, snapped more necks, and slept with half the whores in London. There is also the strong suggestion that, while in Africa, he has become involved in some kind of black magic. In fact he may only be alive due to black magic and seems to have the unnerving ability to tell when someone has died from the hidden secrets of Mother Nature.
As Taboo is basically financed by Tom Hardy who played a great part in the story as well, some of the other characters are less developed but that is only because Taboo is all about James Delaney. However amongst all the other great characters and indeed actors is Jonathan Pryce who as Sir Stuart Strange is the head of the Honourable East India Company. Having had the pleasure of being just inches away from Mr. Pryce when he performed at The Globe theatre a year or two ago, I was looking forward to seeing him get his teeth stuck into such a juicy role and he is malevolently magnificent here. Another highlight of most episodes of Taboo is to hear Sir Stuart Strange shout out the F-Word in a way that no-one else could ever come close to.
The F-Word is mentioned quite a lot in Taboo, there is no hiding behind civility and politeness here, this is the London of the streets and can appear in conversation at almost any time.
James Delaney is just as unique and we see him kill and maim many others. In one of many classic scenes we learn of what he would do if 12 men were sent to bother him.“You send 12 men,” he tells her, “and I will send you 12 testicles in a bag.” This raises an intriguing question: what does he plan to do with the other 12 balls? Put them in a stew? Or is he threatening to remove one ball – and only one – from each of the men sent to kill him, sort of a like a warning shot? We never do find out.
It is one of the few threats that we never actually get the chance to see come to pass and this is a series where James Delaney seems to use evil supernatural powers to remotely attack a woman in her bed.
“The dogs around here,” he says, motioning to the mutt that’s happily joined Hardy for a mid-afternoon stroll, “live off the flesh of suicides jumping off Blackfriars’s Bridge.”
Phew, for a moment there I thought he was at risk of mellowing for a few minutes and that wouldn’t do as when you have enemies and schemers such as the Prince Regent no less on your back then you need every grunt that you can get your hands on.
The sets and costumes are as wonderful as the actors and dialogue and mention must be made of the superb soundtrack which you can sample a little of below.
Finally, here are some of my favourite quotes from the first series of Taboo. A second series has been immediately commissioned so if you didn’t watch Taboo the first time around, it is well worth trying to find a way to catch up with it before the winter.
Coop: You promised to give me those names.
Delaney: I did? I must have lied.
Coop: Your Highness, there is little doubt in my mind that senior directors of the East India have done a deal with Delaney.
Prince Regent: Just fucking kill him!
Coop: If he dies, the Nootka goes to the Americans, as per his will.
Prince Regent: Fuck Nootka! Fuck wills, treaties. I’m the head of fucking state. And by the command of his majesty, kill him.
I need a ship. You have four hours.
Delaney [to Strange]
The things I did in Africa make your transactions look paltry. I witnessed and participated in darkness that you cannot conceive.
Delaney [to Strange]
I have a use for you.
Delaney [to Sir Strange]
I happen to like driving in nails. Takes your mind off the rain, and off of the sinking ship.
Delaney on securing African slaves below deck on an illegal slaver ship.
Brace: You stink of cow shit.
Delaney: It’s horse shit, actually.
Now we’ve screwed maharajahs, we’ve screwed moguls, and this man, this man is merely a London mongrel. So? Come on! Ideas?
My apologies – that was an excellent shot. I can only assume that your second is a Company man, since he failed to load a ball in your pistol. It would appear that my life is more precious than yours. Good day.
Delaney [to Thorne]
Strange: We had a fucking agreement! Common cause. Fucking snakes! Who tipped you off?
Lackey: Anonymous note.
Strange: Delaney! He’s turning London into his own private bear pit. And what are we? The bear? Or the dogs? Shit! And that fat pig-Prince Prinny, plays the fool so he can better play the game. I’ll pop him. I swear to God I’ll burst him like a pig’s bladder! Get a message to Coop; tell him we withdraw our negotiators from the India talks.
Atticus: What’s the smallest thing you’ve ever seen?
Delaney: Human kindness.
Strange: Where did he get the money to buy a ship? Jesus Christ, am I the only one in this company with a brain? They got to him first: either in Africa, or on the journey back to London. One of their agents approached him, briefed him, gave him money, and secured his services.
Lackey: Who did, sir?
Strange: THE FUCKING AMERICANS!
Forgive me Father, for I have indeed sinned.