• The look that is 'Taboo'

    The BBC’s period drama Taboo, which concludes next weekend, has been a revelation. Though set during the Regency in a London of lavish palaces, glamourous balls and inter-personal machinations, it is a very long way indeed from Jane Austen or the Brontes. Dark, twisted, grimy and grim, it is shot through with corruption, African witchcraft and violence, as James Keziah Delaney returns from a decade away to claim his inheritance. Tom Hardy, who co-created the series, is stunning in that role, an unstoppable spirit emerging from the heart of darkness to wreak havoc amongst the establishment, renew a sexual relationship with his half-sister and play the Crown, the rebellious American colonies and the commercial giant of the East India Company against each other. An exceptionally good supporting cast includes, arguably, by the stunning production design, which gives each place a character of its own.

    The London of Taboo – which set in 1814 – includes many scenes along the Thames; indeed, with its nightmarish sequences of drowning, water torture and self-baptismal submergence, the river really does run through the entire drama. Its shelving foreshore is a bleak edge world of tough workers, shifting gravel and blackened timbers, these as broken and spiky as the characters who brood there. The atmosphere is part Turner, part Constable and all glowering. The real Thames at Tilbury was used as a location, with the walls and walkways of its famous coastal defence fortress, dating back to the 17th century, serving as the byways of Wapping.

    The isolation of Tilbury is in contrast to the bustling tourism of today’s Southwark riverside in central London where a full-size, sea-going replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde has been moored as an attraction since 1996. The vessel was used by the Taboo production team as Delaney’s own ship, as well as for a number of other maritime interiors. The Cornish port of Charlestown was also employed.

    East London’s St Mary the Virgin church effectively played itself for the funeral of Delaney’s father; similarly, south London’s exquisite Palladian villa Danson House became Delaney’s sister’s marital home. The Charterhouse lent its intricate courtyards for a number of hospital scenes.

    Importantly, some locations have also been chosen that are expansive enough to allow longer and more dynamic camera moves by directors (Kristoffer Nyholm and Anders Engström). The remarkably preserved enclave of Middle Temple was superbly suited as a stand-in for the bustling streets of Georgian London in this weekend’s penultimate episode, a character running at full tilt along a street, up some stairs and around a corner in a single shot.

    Outside the capital, one historic country seat provided for multiple realities. The south front of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, home of Jacobean statesman Robert Cecil, became the exterior of the Prince Regent’s palace, unnamed in the script but which must be John Nash’s Carlton House on what was to

    become The Mall. The Long Gallery with its sumptuous gilded ceiling was used to represent the interior, in a number of extraordinary deep-focus shots. Appropriately, the chillier Marble Hall, with its black and white chequered floor and wooden panelling, was used for the interior of the other, secular palace in the series, the headquarters of the East India Company. Its exterior was played by the Livery Hall of the Goldsmiths Company, in the City of London.

    Cinematographer Mark Patten’s gorgeous tonalities have also made the set dressings of tapestries, furniture and more come alive, whether in the boisterous scenes at a molly-house or the quieter moments. Add in such details as tattoos, make up, shoes, hats and posters, and Sonja Klaus’s production design has been the final element that makes this Taboo compulsory.

    Taboo, written by Steven Knight, created by Steven Knight, Tom Hardy and Edward "Chips" Hardy and based on a story written by Tom Hardy, concludes Saturday 25 February on BBC One but is available on iPlayer afterwards.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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