“I feel least qualified to go and do a period drama for the BBC,” says Tom Hardy during our interview sessions early last December for his new eight part drama Taboo.
The show airs its first episode tomorrow night on BBC One and charts the return of James Delaney, described by the actor as a “perverse renaissance man”, to London from his adventures in Africa upon the death of his Father.
He is a man with guilty secrets, and one who gives no quarter to the hostility he encounters from his family and the institutions which seek to hold him to order. As viewers will see tonight the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has been recreated in all its gory, dirty glory. This is a bleak beginning to a story that has an even darker path to tread in future weeks.
We sat down with Hardy and his Father ‘Chips’, who came up with the initial idea, and their collaborative partners in the project Ridley Scott and Steven Knight. Knight and Hardy have worked together before on the feature film Locke as well as the TV series Peaky Blinders. Scott talked about watching his Black Hawk Down actor evolve over the fifteen years distance to become one of the best actors working today.
It was the Alien director who talked first about his input into the project, and how he found the world of James Delaney.
“Chips had a very well written treatment in terms of the storylines and the characters, it was fundamentally a bible. My main concern is writing, that’s the hardest thing to get. In anything I do I spend more time with the writers because the details, the milestones in the stories are the most important and as a director I know when I’ve got the milestones.”
His sheparding of Taboo to the small screen is just one of many projects Scott has ongoing.
“I’ve seven TV shows going, four feature films going,” he began. This interview was conducted a week after filming finished in Budapest on Blade Runner 2049 and Scott revealed why his involvement changed on that film.
“I was meant to direct it, but the reason I couldn’t is because I needed to do [Alien] Covenant first.” While we can only imagine a Scott-directed Blade Runner sequel we have his own succinct comments on his other revisitation of an old work (the aforementioned Alien Covenant), “It’s a hard R – It’s a beast. It’s a monster, it’s a nasty motherfucker.” We can’t wait…
Back to the grimy world of pre-Industrial England, Steven Knight opened up our discussion by telling us why he was happy to get involved.
“The original idea was ‘An adventurer returns to to London from Africa with guilty secrets’. I wanted to put it into 1814 as that’s a period that really interests me. Britain is at war with United States, at war with France and the East India Company is at war with the Crown – so much turmoil. It’s like there’s all these big explosions happening.
“Here’s a man [Delaney] who has done terrible things but has no guilt. And he’s in a country that has only just abolished the slave trade with no-one prosecuted. This is just before the Modern World – it was when people were starting to establish the individual. You’re not a member of a church congregation, you’re not a subject, you don’t belong to that village… Delaney proves himself to be exactly that. He’s not loyal to the crown, just to himself.”
There is a palpable sense of distrust to the show. The tension between the man (in the furious form of Hardy’s Delaney) against the various well-oiled machines of society, present here in fine form of the East India Company, drives the show. The disharmony established in the first episode looks set to continue and Knight talked about being drawn to Hardy’s character as a man “Out of place, out of time. Something that doesn’t want to be defined. Without wishing to be allegorical – he IS the Industrial revolution.”
His storming of the castle walls of the establishment plays a large part in the opening episode. There are also hints of elements yet to emerge from the later episodes which may find Delaney rallying against other accepted established forms – Nature itself perhaps?
“We asked ‘What we would do with a period drama?’ We wanted gather a group of individuals who might not necessarily be your first port of call for a period drama at the BBC. Our mission statement included continuing the legacy and intent of previous period dramas back through A Play for Today, to Upstairs Downstairs…”
‘Chips’ completed the thought, “Dennis Potter, Brideshead Revisited – dramas that people used to go out and talk about and get upset about and make a presence felt.”
The character of James Delaney certainly does that, Tom Hardy explained how it came to be.
“It started with the character. I had played Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist and I wondered ‘What if Bill Sykes was the hero?’
If you could amalgamate Hannibal Lecter, Sherlcok Holmes, with Heathcliff with Marlow from Heart of Darkness and Bill Sykes – what would that look like?”
His Father continued, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a conflicted hero and push that – somebody who’s both heinous but you feel for? He’s driven and he’s over the top but you’re with him because his threats are just external, but internal.”
The actor quoted George Bernard Shaw, “All progress relies on an unreasonable man,” and he spoke of the cohabitation of horror and humanity the character of Delaney embodies. He mentioned the infamous moment in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight when Heath Ledger’s Joker dispatches a henchman using only a pencil.
They asked themselves, “How do you create the atmosphere of a taboo nature? And it does feel very dark…” Again his Father finished the thought, “It’s like a period drama, but more like period reportage – there’s chopping up horses. That’s something you don’t normally see in Mansfield Park. When people get dirty they stay dirty.
“We wanted to invert the orthodox. To create an unconventional period drama that had orthodox period drama elements such as design. It’s been created beautifully, realistically, almost foresenically… We wanted, within that, to subvert the obvious choices.”
Tom Hardy underlined the message, “We wanted it to feel like we’ve found an old classic that nobody has ever read before, blew the dust off it. That was the experiment.”
Taboo has much to recommend it. The darkness within is given a furious momentum by the show’s leading character. The mystery hinted at within tonight’s first episode promises to be revealed slowly and painfully. There are eight episodes completed, with the possibility of more to come (Ridley Scott commented “There are rumblings of the second series now. That would take us through to the United States.”) and we have the feeling that this will be one of 2017’s highlights.
Taboo begins on the 7th of January on BBC One at 9pm.