Taboo’s origin story began with Oliver Twist.
Tom Hardy is more than just the lead actor in FX and BBC’s new drama Taboo; he’s baked into the DNA. Beyond just acting in the show, he produces it and co-created it, and it’s a bit of a passion project he’s been developed for close to a decade.
Hardy credits the conception for Taboo to a conversation he had with his father nine years ago, while he was making 2007’s BBC mini-series Oliver Twist. At the time, he went to his father, novelist and comedian Chips Hardy, with the pitch to take a villainous character like Oliver Twist’s Bill Sikes, mix him with the likes of Heart of Darkness’s Marlow and Jack the Ripper, put him inside a gentleman’s body and mix the two together.
The idea was to create a hero in a classic period drama that could transcend the class divides between the opulent upper class of 19th century London and the city’s dark underbelly. At the time, his father’s response was he didn’t have a story there, to which Hardy declared: “I just want to play this character.”
We want to hear it.
Hardy recalls his father telling him, “Tom, will you just close the door on the way out? I need to finish my novel,” but a year later Chips Hardy completed a treatment that they then took to Steven Knight. “We begged Steve to write our story because we had a concept and a basic treatment of the character, and Steve was busy and he had an offer informally, which was, ‘If you do Locke and Peaky Blinders, I would love to do your pilot and rewrite your title.’ That’s where it all started, and the three of us set about trying to create a new piece of work,” said Hardy.
Knowing that the catch for creating Taboo with Knight was working together on 2013’s Locke and 2014’s Peaky Blinders gives a sense of just how long this has actively been a passion project for Hardy. At Taboo’s 2017 winter TV Critics Association press tour panel for Taboo, Knight recalls being immediately intrigued by Hardy’s pitch because “you know he’s going to play the lead.”
Through Hardy’s character James Delaney, Knight is exploring the rise of individualism in post-French Revolution, post-American Revolution 1814 Britain. They picked the year “1814” because it was a time Britain was at war with both America and France, and the crown was at war with the East India Company.
The first episode of Taboo gives a hint at where the eight-episode first season is heading; namely, that James Delaney is at the center of an international conflict. As the property he inherits, Noutka Sound, becomes a location of major interest for the American and British governments, the entire series becomes about “commerce and trade.”
Hardy acknowledges that the first three episodes of Taboo are a “slow start,” an introduction to the characters and their relationships with a “gothic vibe.” But he promises they will “accrue new characters who you won’t expect” and go off on different tangents, which eventually builds up the things James Delaney doing affecting “the whole world.”
“[The characters] become an entity that go west that can be whatever they want to be,” said Hardy. “It’s a certain diversity and a collection of thinking that gathers, the central human force being James Delaney — and I’m not just saying that because it’s my own show, I’m saying that because the character, he starts to attract a specific type of mercurial, enigmatic person that it becomes a group, but they’re all individual thinkers that then take their crazy family. They’re an odd bunch, and then they’ll have to go around the world.”
Though Delaney is a Brit, Knight views Taboo as basically the story of America.
“This is, amongst other things, the story of America,” said Knight. “Their natural destination at this time is America. These are how Americans came about, and that’s another thing that this series will come to explore.”
Taboo airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.
Terri Schwartz is Entertainment Editor at IGN. Talk to her on Twitter at @Terri_Schwartz.