Period dramas are coming to TV thick and fast these days, bringing cinema-style challenges to the artisans who work on them.
The latest of these is FX’s “Taboo,” which debuted last week. Created by Tom Hardy (who stars), his father, Chips Hardy, and “Peaky Blinders” scribe Steven Knight, the eight-episode miniseries represents a trans-Atlantic partnership between FX and BBC One. Set in 1814 London, the tale of revenge follows adventurer James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), who returns from Africa to inherit his father’s shipping empire and clashes with the powerful East India Co.
Sonja Klaus, the show’s production designer, traveled with producer Tim Bricknell throughout England to find locations that fit the period. Many centered on water, which plays a major role in the story. The hardest part, says Klaus, was finding locations “along the River Thames for sites that no longer exist.”
Some shooting took place at Tilbury Fort, an old stronghold on the Thames estuary. Sets were built along the river; others were constructed on stage at Ealing Studios. “Delany’s home was made as a two-story house with a separate kitchen in the basement,” says Klaus.
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Delany’s world is surreal, ominous, and filled with symbolism and thoughts of retribution. To create a palette reflecting this, the designer worked with DP Mark Patten and head painter Gillian Campbell. “We were determined to keep things dark,” says Klaus. “There’s this idea to turn on all the lights in television, but we managed to keep it gritty and dirty. It had to be filled with mud, shit, and piss.”
Klaus plotted all movements, drawing maps to measure such actions as the time it takes Delaney to walk from his home to work, or to visit his half-sister, played by Oona Chaplin. “It’s really important to plan out these things so that when visual effects gets involved they’re not slapping a load of buildings in the background,” Klaus says. “We knew all the routes he used, which was very helpful in collaborating with all the departments.”
Another challenge was to bring to life the powerful East India Co. while keeping to the series’ tight budget. “It’s very easy to choose beautiful stately homes,” says Klaus. “But the challenge with television is going from the exterior to the interior. You can end up with a terrible marriage between the two. We worked really hard to have transitions convey a feeling of grandeur.”