London, 1814. Everything is dirty and damp. The mud gets everywhere. Thames-side hovels are part-submerged in the river – the filthy water seeps into the city and its people. And here comes James Keziah Delaney (“a dead man”, “a ghost”), with one foot in the real world of trade and the other in the realm of spirits and visions.
Taboo (BBC1) is a period drama but it isn’t exactly regular prime-time TV. Under the stewardship of Tom Hardy, who not only plays the main character but conceived of him too, the show has resurrected early 19th-century London in all its bleak and comfortless detail.
Delaney has arrived from Africa and is set on claiming his inheritance, a piece of land called Nootka Sound on the west coast of North America. Water has brought him back home and will take him to his uncertain future – it is also where he encounters fragments of his troubled past: sinking ships and drowning slaves.
It can be a difficult watch. The story moves slowly and is often hard to follow; Delaney barely speaks and when he does he grunts. He is not a character you warm to easily. Yet both he and the world he inhabits make for captivating viewing.
The cinematography and elaborate sets work to highlight the gulf between London’s rich and poor (only the wealthy can escape the dirt and dark), but it’s the details that really elevate Taboo. Scenes are full of objects and goods that function as symbols of wealth (or poverty), yet assert a kind of stylised realism. Pattern and decoration is everywhere – on waistcoats and wallpaper, chair cushions, even on the crockery that is laid out by Delaney’s servant, Brace. The spoils of trade are visible in every room.
Similarly, the offices of the East India Company are portrayed as gilded chambers that show off the profits of imperialism and capitalist drive, while Delaney’s house remains a dusty, cave-like sanctuary. Candles can’t quite penetrate the darkness here and, in the wealthier dwellings, they merely highlight the decadence and decay of a society obsessed with acquisition.
Production Designer Sonja Klaus told Variety that the intention was to keep things dark: “It had to be filled with mud, shit and piss.” Well, you don’t get that on Downton Abbey.
Perhaps even more removed from the conventions of period drama is that Taboo isn’t afraid to develop at its own pace. For a series that has international trade disputes and war with America as its backdrop, it has, in the first seven episodes at least, refrained from taking Delaney away from the banks of the Thames.
Revelations about his past will no doubt feature in the final instalment, yet it would be no surprise if his full story remains a mystery. After all, Delaney’s character is shrouded throughout: if he’s not wearing a huge, heavy coat and hat, he’s drenched by rain or covered in mud. Details on Delaney himself are sparse but, as Taboo is proving in its own grisly way, some things are perhaps better left unknown.
Taboo concludes tomorrow night (February 25) on BBC1. It is also available on the iPlayer