“I wanted to play Bill Sykes, Sherlock Holmes and Hannibal Lecter, in one.”
Taboo has been a long time coming – BBC One’s wild and ambitious new period thriller will arrive on our screens some seven years after originating, as a spark of an idea, in the the mind of its star Tom Hardy.
Along with his father, Edward ‘Chips’ Hardy, Oscar nominee Tom conceived of a character – originally known as ‘Osborne’ – who has been to the ends of the earth and comes back irrevocably changed.
“It came about from doing [BBC One’s 2007 miniseries] Oliver Twist and playing Bill Sykes,” Tom tells us. “To be bluntly honest, I wanted to play Bill Sykes, Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lecter, Heathcliff, Marlow [from Heart of Darkness]… just every classical character in one.”
More influences poured into the Hardys’ original conception: including Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission – and, in creating Osborne (later James Keziah Delaney), the early cinematic performances of Oliver Reed and Richard Burton.
“In part it’s Hamlet, there’s Oedipus in there, there’s Heart of Darkness… there’s lots of different stories,” Tom acknowledges. “It’s just trying to contain as many stories as possible without diluting it, and also still making it its own piece.”
In its final form, Taboo is an eight-part series with some serious pedigree. Following Delaney as he returns to Britain from Africa, and – in the wake of his father’s death – declares war on the establishment, it’s scripted by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight and has Ridley Scott on board as executive producer.
Tom insists that while the show retains the “same ethos” as his and Chips’ original concept, it “would be wrong to say that it was [their] piece”.
“It started off as a conversation between me and my father… but the piece is now something unrecognisable from that conversation and it belongs to an entire team of people.”
Getting fellow Oscar nominee Knight on board was particularly important. In fact, Tom’s previous collaborations with the writer were all part of a long game to secure his involvement with Taboo.
“There was [2013 film] Locke and Peaky Blinders and some intermingling in order to make good and show that we wanted to work with Steve,” Tom reveals. “He was a key individual that we needed, creatively, to transmute the concepts into what we wanted.”
The end result is quite unlike any other period drama you’ll have seen before. Taboo is every bit as unflinching and unhinged as its protagonist – and Tom is happy to accept that this graphic and earthy thriller might not appeal to the Downton crowd.
“But it’s the period drama that I desire to watch,” he says. “People might not like this – so accept that, and push that. People will either like it or hate it, but it won’t be middle of the road. Either it’s going to go well, or it’s going to go really f**king badly. But it was an effort made in the right pursuit, I believe.”
Part of why Taboo might prove so controversial is its central character- the show’s title isn’t a tease, it’s a promise, and James Keziah Delaney indulges in dark and questionable practices. Can such a man ever be considered a hero? Tom thinks so – because for all his flaws, Delaney is an honest man, one surrounded by deceit and corruption.
“He seems insane, crazy, evil, wrong… and then we find out he’s actually probably the sanest, most honest man in the room and everybody else, the bastions and the pillars of society, are wearing masks.”
Tom himself has the feel of an outsider and that’s translated to many of the roles he’s played on screen – in everything from 2012’s Prohibition-era crime drama Lawless to 2015’s spectacular Mad Max: Fury Road.
He admits to seeing a little of himself in even a character as extreme as Delaney. “I see myself in everyone that I play… I can’t separate myself from my characters. I don’t subscribe to just saying your lines… and not getting in the way. I wouldn’t f**king have it. I want to be connected to whatever it is I’m doing.”
Taboo starts Saturday, January 7 at 9.15pm on BBC One.