SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of tonight’s Taboo debut on FX.
“With any period piece I think the thing to do is forget that it’s not contemporary when you’re writing and to have the characters feel as much as possible like characters that you would know,” executive producer Steven Knight says of Taboo, his 1814-set Tom Hardy-starring series that debuts tonight on FX.
Depicting the once-thought-dead and now-scarred James Keziah Delaney’s return to London from Africa to take over his dead father’s business, Taboo was created by Hardy, his father Edward and Knight.
While its their first American series together, the FX and BBC partnership with Ridley Scott as an EP is far from the first time Hardy and Knight have collaborated. The duo worked together on the Knight-created 1920s-set BBC/Netflix gangster series Peaky Blinders, which Hardy joined in its second season playing barber/gangster Alfie Solomons. Before that, they also teamed for Locke, the 2014 film Knight wrote and directed and for which Hardy played the title role.
In town for the TCA, Knight spoke to me about how the dark Taboo came to be and where future seasons could go — literally. The Who Wants To Be A Millionaire co-creator and Allied screenwriter also discussed the next season of the Cillian Murphy-led Peaky, working with FX, and the evolution of television.
DEADLINE: Taboo is set in a time that pre-dates the Victorian Era, finding Regency England between empires and still at war with the fledgling independent America – a part of history that is greatly forgotten or certainly hidden to many. What opportunities and what pitfalls does that present for you as a creator and writer?
KNIGHT: I think it creates so many more opportunities and pitfalls in that you are treading on fresh snow, so you’re in a new place. I think certain periods of history don’t get dealt with because I think historians, and it’s their job, but they look back and look for patterns. They look for sequences and they look for reasons, and certain periods of history don’t fit with the general pattern of 1500 to the 20th century, during which there’s the creation of the United States. At this time of 1814, two nations who would eventually become close allies were at war with each other, so it doesn’t quite fit.
There was an unbelievable amount of animosity in that war which people have forgotten, which was still around 50 years later. And it was conducted with spies, it was conducted with espionage, and all of that stuff is gray. I think it really lends itself to a drama and depicting a city, London, in a way that it’s never been depicted before.
DEADLINE: In that depiction, you place the once almost all-powerful British East India Company as the adversary of Tom Hardy’s James Delaney, between whom there is a deep and dark not-so-hidden history. Why?
KNIGHT: I think the East India Company represents what we would think of as a very modern approach to the world where everything was counted, every penny was counted.
They were a huge multinational that had the added impetus that they felt they were spreading Christian civilization around the world — so they were pretty free to do anything they wanted. They weren’t an evil organization that went around deliberately oppressing people, but they were driven by profit, and how familiar is that now?
The story of James Delaney is also someone who very deliberately presents himself as an individual and plays nations against each other, plays the East India against the Crown, all of those sort of overwhelming concepts that ran the world at the time. He as an individual is sort of like a grain of sand in an oyster who is irritating all of them. But for me he’s a creature of the time, like the industrialists who started the Industrial Revolution who extricated themselves from their class and their background
DEADLINE: Part of the thrust of the series is the battle that Delaney has with the East India Company over the strategic Nootka Sound land that Delaney’s father owned off the West Coast of what is now Canada. So will we see the series step foot in North America?
KNIGHT: Not certainly in this first eight hours, but we have plans — well, certainly I have plans — if we get given the green light for more. The plan is that there would be three seasons, and, as with Peaky Blinders, I have had a destination in mind from the beginning, because I think it helps as a writer. The destination in mind is that James Keziah Delaney sets foot on Nootka Sound. But that’s a long way off.
DEADLINE: Where will you find the time? It’s not like you both aren’t busy.
KNIGHT: I think when we first set out on this we’d go well, eight hours we can tell the story, you know, the story — beginning, middle, and end. But I know Tom has loved it so much really, has been so involved as a producer and as an actor. I’ve enjoyed it so much that we would both be ready and willing to do Series 2 and Series 3 and see where it goes.
DEADLINE: Speaking of where it goes, there is a very distinct pacing to Taboo, an unraveling of events and secrets and consequences that doesn’t conform to the usual dramatic format. Why take that approach?
KNIGHT: Well, I relish the eight-hour format of a single season because it gives you time to do that. When we first discussed this we wanted it to feel almost like a novel, and a novel can take its time to establish characters. And I think once those friendships, if you use that as an analogy, the friendships between the audience and the character is established, then you can start to take liberties. I believe that as this unfolds people will find the time invested worthwhile.
But also, there’s something about the evolution of television where it evolved from to the things that we’re now watching and loving. It evolved from film writers, film actors, and I think gradually people are easing themselves into the amount of time they have. So a creative person can suddenly realize it’s not 90 minutes. They haven’t got to do three acts, they haven’t got to do the arc, but they can do other things. I think just as novellas turned into novels, I think that television series can begin to have that depth. I’m not suggesting that ours is unique in that, but they can begin to have that depth, that gravity, they can spend some time, so it’s a bit more like reading a good novel, if you like.
DEADLINE: With Peaky Blinders, you had a personal connection to the time, people and place. How did you find that connection with Taboo?
KNIGHT: With any period piece I think the thing to do is forget that it’s not contemporary when you’re writing and to have the characters feel as much as possible like characters that you would know. Because I don’t think that jealousy and love and hate and anger and all those things have changed in the past 200 years — people just express themselves differently. So I wanted to take a damaged individual in a damaged society with damaged relationships between nations and take a look at how this individual survives amongst them, and that for me as a writer is the connection that you needed to get inside the skin of the main character and wonder how he’s going to cope with all this.
DEADLINE: So, with such damaged people in mind, where are things at for the next season of Peaky Blinders?
KNIGHT: I’m very, very excited because I’m just completing Episode 6 of Series 4, which again I think is the best yet. And I’m loving it and it’s not like work, it’s not like a labor, I love doing it, and the boys are coming back and they’re loving the scripts, and we start shooting in March.
DEADLINE: Is Tom going to be a part of the new season of Peaky too?
KNIGHT: Of course. We can’t do it without Alfie.
DEADLINE: Did Taboo come out of the Peaky collaboration?
KNIGHT: No, actually, it predated it. What happened was I was invited to meet Tom to discuss a project that he had in his mind about an adventurer who returns to England from Africa with secrets and with a history, and the original idea was set some 80 years later than it is now. But in the conversation I really took to the idea and I’d wanted for a while to set something in 1830 and 1840 in London, so it struck a chord.
But in the conversation, I spoke to Tom’s manager and said, “While we’re talking about Taboo, do you mind if I also mention this film project that I’ve got, which is called Locke, and I need Tom to play the lead.” And we spoke about both in that meeting and in the end the deal was that I would do Taboo if he did Locke and vice versa.
DEADLINE: You guys are becoming quite the team, like Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio…
KNIGHT: (laughs) Well, I wouldn’t put myself in that bracket, but it’s one of those things. I think what helps is that we don’t socialize, we don’t really know each other, we purely work together. And I think that helps because there has been no formality of friendship, the politeness of friendship, so we can just work directly on the work that’s ahead of us. I am someone who thinks that if you’ve got an actor like that who wants to perform your work, then you should do it, and hopefully Tom likes to do the work that I do, so long may it continue.
DEADLINE: Taboo has been a partnership between FX and the BBC. How did you find the transition to working for an American cable network?
KNIGHT: It has been exactly the same as working with the BBC in that creatively they do that precious thing which is to only make a comment when a comment needs to be made. You work, especially in the movie business more than in TV, but you have an environment where people feel obliged to have an input because that’s what they do, and I think sometimes it can clutter things up and make things more problematic.
But with FX in particular, they’ve been fantastic and were really hands off. I mean, it helps that you’ve got Ridley Scott…