It’s historical porn.
Of course it wasn’t actually pornographic. Compared to its TV contemporaries Taboo was actually very tasteful with its use of nudity, which is indicative of the love and care spent on the visuals of each and every scene. Nothing was left to the imagination. King James’ opulent one-man banquets, a half-shawn giraffe, the dreary dockyards and the dreadful dungeon… the gore and the glory were all in the details.
A weekly Guardian comment piece on the show identified the most fantastically baroque threat each week. One week it was said by Stuart Strange (a wonderful name) directed at the Prince Regent: “I’ll pop him. I swear to God I’ll pop him like a pig’s bladder.” Rich as the flavouring of historical authenticity was, this alone cannot explain why Taboo succeeded in making period drama cool where before they had been stab-your-own-eyes-out-unwatchable. In fact, historical accuracy cannot have been a reason at all; how could it when James Delaney is portrayed as having magik that could bring his sister to orgasm from afar?
Taboo was infused with magik. However, the rules of this magik were never told. How magik worked in this world was not something the show gave any time to explaining, unlike in the fantasy genre. Therefore, the question which viewers were encouraged to return to, again and again, was this: was magik really ‘real’ in this world? After all, we were never certain that James Delaney actually had the power of voodoo; clever camera work, seamless editing, pagan waters on repeat, and the fact that James was surely mad, all meant that we were unable to trust our own bearings on what was meant to be ‘real’ in this historical but always fictional world…
And, as it turns out, this uncertainty is history. In Episode Six, James Delaney speaks in a foreign tongue to Winter – the only person not scared of James. As his foreign words fall out of his mouth she becomes utterly terrified. In that moment, James is magik, and the ignorance and superstitions of the time are captured. The magik behind the incest scenes, and the fact that it is presented to you as real, is real in the same sense that people who lived through those times thought it could be real. ‘Reality’ loses all significance (Nabokov once said ‘reality’ was the one word that should always be put in quotation marks). We are reminded somewhat of the world of today, where apparently if enough people think something is true then in a perverted manner it starts to become true…
In the 19th century, the Peruvian Amazon Company was harvesting rubber from trees in the Putumayo (an area that now boarders Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia). Michael Taussig’s study of the atrocities committed by members of the company against the natives has been seminal in expanding upon what Joseph Timmerman first described as the ‘space of death’. In the Putumayo, company men were placed into fantastical places with fantastical threats and in so doing lost their sense of reality. Their search for control was expressed via torture. Something that was imaginary, or at the very least a hyperbolised preconception, became very real. The space of death become a space of transformation, and it is in this that the boundary of magical realism has to be carefully trod. Of course, the most famous exploration of this can be found in Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness, and that quote which everybody knows: “the horror, the horror.”
Cultural purists will argue that Taboo offers no new insight into the topic, and that it is a fool who maintains that a BBC Drama could match the depth of Joseph Conrad. These cultural purists are almost completely right – as I said, Taboo left very little the imagination, and, as has been shown, the imagination is crucial to the historical experience. However, they are not entirely right. Taboo has worth. Terry Eagleton reminds us that we often find it too easy to distinguish between high and low culture. It is often an unhelpful binary. There are plenty of cultural items which by virtue of an author’s oeuvre are classed as high culture and yet are awful in almost every sense. There’s a reason none of you have read The Keutzer Sonata.
TV, the low culture medium that supposedly dulls our minds and dims our appreciation of any aesthetic save cinematography, has produced something truly magnificent in Taboo. It is art worthy of discussion precisely because rather than drum out a boring allegory it hides its history under the breeze of its beauty.