‘Taboo’ review: Episode 2 is just on the verge of delightfully nuts

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James Delaney is a man with a plan.

A plan and a really great coat.

Look at him, swooshing and swishing around Georgian London in it. Last week I incorrectly said it was Victorian London but – don’t let the GCSE fool you – I am an idiot. The brief presence of a heavily disguised Mark Gatiss (busy boy this weekend) as the gouty, sweary, Prince Regent with arse trouble, proves it.

Gatiss’s performance, garlanded by the gaudy (but historically accurate) decorations and taxidermy, is an odd but brilliant little cameo. One which shows Taboo having the sort of fun you suspect it wants to have more of, but daren’t at the risk of compromising that growly, inky black aura that it spent its first episode cultivating. Taboo is just on the verge of delightfully nuts, but it’s perhaps for the best that it errs on the side of caution and stays frowny-faced.

Aside from being the gaudy antipode to Hardy’s shadow and threat, Gatiss’s presence is another example of how terrific the make-up and prosthetics in Taboo is. It’s so good that everyone from prince to pauper looks fucking dreadful; roughed up, sanded down, tattooed, liquor-addled.

It’s like every day of their lives has been an early Monday morning in January. Poldark makes Georgian living look like something you’d find in a glossy magazine; Taboo makes it look like something you’d try to scoop up with a glossy mag and toss in the bin then scold the dog for.

And yet the muck and darkness looks fantastic, as though it were part of a GQ feature proudly claiming that dirt and struggle were ‘on trend’ in 2017, along with articles on the finer points of horse haggling, and ’10 Tips For Owning Your Own Second-Hand Ship (No.6 will SHOCK you)’.

Which brings us back to Delaney’s plan. He’s bought an old ship, had a mild naked freakout in it on the first night (I did much the same when I bought my first house) and now plans to use it to trade under his own company; sailing from his piece of land on the Pacific North-West Coast to the Far East. And perhaps even working with the Americans.

Either way, he’s pissing off the East India Trading Co.

No wonder Sir Stuart Strange wants him dead. Jonathan Pryce seems to be quietly having a lot of fun as the crotchety, cane-tapping head of The Company. Not quite Tomorrow Never Dies levels of fun, but it’s clearly a performance to put your teeth in, then get your teeth into.

Also getting his teeth into the part (and into other people, but more on that in a sec) is Tom Hardy, continuing to prove that he can inhabit the anti-hero he envisioned. Still, There’s more than a touch of that other Steven Knight written protagonist – Peaky Blinders‘ Tommy Shelby – about James Delaney.

Like his Brummie counterpart a century later, Delaney goes around tormenting people and being tormented by his own demons, playing sides, and making enemies and demands that lead to the highest-ranking people in the West.  ‘I want a line of conference with the President of the fifteen states of America,’ he tells the American spy n’ dye professional, and you almost believe he can get it.

And just like Tommy Shelby there’s always family trouble. Horace Delaney’s widow, the sassy but vulnerable actress Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley) turns up to the reading of the will; complicating Delaney’s plans but also giving the East India Company a chance to seize his land.

Cue a dramatic sequence as Delaney is attacked in an alleyway by a sinister assassin, to the strains of Beethoven’s 6th. Classical music and physical assault feel like a familiar trope, although for the life of me I can’t think of any other occasion off the top off my head. Answers on a postcard please.

It’s an intensely grubby and brutal fight made elegant by the classical soundtrack. Delaney gets the best of his attacker, but only just. He takes a big bite out of his neck, giving a small hint that perhaps he did indulge in cannibalism in Africa, and an even bigger hint that – true to his word – Delaney is not a man you want to fuck with.

He’s left lying in an alley with a knife in him, which would seem perilous if there weren’t six episodes left. As it is, it’s just an inconvenience for him, and for us, as we have to wait a week until we inevitably see him get patched up and get back to his plan.

His plan and his really, really great coat.

Aired at 9.15pm on Saturday 14 January 2017 on BBC One.

Pre-order Taboo on DVD on Amazon here.

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