“Russell Crowe? I’ve done five films with him! Michael Fassbender? He’s fantastic. Matt Damon? Absolutely the best.” Ridley Scott is talking through his leading men. As the Hollywood director responsible for Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator and Thelma & Louise, Scott could equally be talking about his leading women, stars like Sigourney Weaver, Susan Sarandon or Charlize Theron. But we’re in an overtly masculine space, the back of Scott’s leather-lined limo heading for Heathrow, and the bearded 79-year-old has men on his mind. In particular, Tom Hardy, star and co-creator of Taboo, the often disturbing, and occasionally befuddling, eight-part late-Georgian drama executive-produced by Scott and developed with Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight.
In Peaky Blinders Hardy plays Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons. In Taboo he is James Delaney, an English adventurer long given up for dead who returns from Africa in 1814 to claim his family inheritance, an island called Nootka Sound, off the west coast of America. Hardy delivers the part, as he occasionally appears to deliver real life, as moody, tattooed and explosive. So I’m surprised when Scott says the one thing his leading men – who also include Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt – have in common is “an inordinate amount of common sense”.
Common sense? Hardy might have just done CBeebies’ Bedtime Story, but it’s easy to think of him as an antagonistic and bristly presence. “Yes, easy,” agrees Scott, “but not with me. Tom’s very straightforward; you know where he is coming from. He’s like Russell, once you come back with the right questions he starts to relax. My job is to be a calming influence. To say, ‘Calm down.’ And part of it is generational respect with Tom. I’ve done a lot and most of it has been pretty good.”
Tattooed in Taboo
Scott’s biggest hits have been films but he started in television – Scott was a trainee set-designer at the BBC in the early 1960s – and recently he has exec-produced several series in the US, including The Man in the High Castle. Scott is also a fan of Nordic noir. “The people in Scandinavian television are very talented,” he says. “I don’t know why it’s occurred, but in the last eight years or so, it has become very, very, very good. Perhaps it’s the long, dark nights.”
Accordingly, Taboo is directed by Kristoffer Nyholm (The Killing) and Anders Engstrom (Thicker than Water and episodes of Wallander). “The trick is to surround yourself with good people,” says Scott. “People who might take your job.” That explains why Steven Knight is the series writer then. “Ridley is brilliant,” Knight tells me later. “He’s proved his point, he’s got nothing else to prove. Therefore he’s the easiest person in the world to work with.”
Scott first saw Taboo as sketched-out by Hardy’s father. ”Tom came in with his dad,” says Scott. “He had written a very detailed ten-page synopsis, which included Africa, America and the dark side of England at the time.” Following Hardy senior’s lead, the London that Scott, Knight and Nyholm have created is a shadowy, greedy and corrupt city. Feeding off slavery and the first fruits of ill-gotten empire, the capital is as dystopian in its way as Los Angeles was in Blade Runner. Dependent on coal and sail rather than cyber-technics, Taboo’s London looks fantastic. It’s television’s new-found love for the lingering shot that attracted Scott. “It seems to be allowing itself, in drama anyway, the freedom to indulge in atmosphere.”
Sir Ridley Scott accepts the American Cinematheque Award from Russell Crowe and Matt Damon in 2016
As a commercials director in the 70s and 80s Scott would make 100 adverts a year. In some years, he claims, 150. Didn’t the quality ever drop? “No,” he says. “It’s like tennis, the more you practise the better you get. If you do seven hours a day you are going to be better than the fella who does it twice a week.” Scott the commercials director is responsible for one of British TV’s most famous moments, the 1973 advert for Hovis bread where a lad on a bicycle struggles up a cobbled hill in Dorset.
Scott was born further north on Tyneside and, apart from a few years in Germany where his father was part of Britain’s postwar Control Commission, was brought up in Stockton-on-Tees, where he remembers the arrival of the first television. “We had a black-and-white with a 12-inch screen. My dad bought a plastic bubble, which was filled with oil, and when you put it in front of the television made it an 18-inch screen.”
Ridley, along with his brothers Frank and Tony, was hooked. “We’d be glued right through to the close down and ‘God Save Our Gracious Queen’ at 10 o’clock.” Later, when he was at art school in Hartlepool, he’d hurry back home to catch the cowboy series Rawhide. “Clint Eastwood played Rowdy Yates. I had dinner with Clint about three years ago and told him how much I used to enjoy it, though I’m not sure he wanted to be reminded.”
Russell Crowe in Gladiator
Scott’s passion for drawing had been ignited by this very magazine. “As a kid I would look through the Radio Times,” he says. “There were beautiful illustrations on every page, black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings.” Charged by the wonder of Radio Times, the young Scott went on to win a place at the Royal College of Art in London in the early 60s, at the same time as David Hockney. “Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud would come and lecture,” he says. “I’d see them in the tea queue.” While he was still at college Scott returned north to make the black-and-white short Boy and Bicycle, starring his younger brother Tony, the future director of Top Gun.
Although Scott says he doesn’t worry about his own mortality – “I don’t think about death though I’ve seen it quite a few times. It’s a definition of my age. People passing” – he was shattered when Tony died in 2012. His brother jumped from a Los Angeles suspension bridge convinced he had cancer. “It was inexplicable,” says Scott. “Particularly for me as Tony and I were very close. But I had no idea what was up.”
Along with the tragedy it has been an occasionally strange career. Scott confirms that he was involved in a late-60s Bee Gees project set in the Middle Ages that had no music in it. “It was a medieval film with the Bee Gees, who would not sing. Great lads but their success was enormous and I think they were beginning to get bored.” In a spell at the BBC, Scott caused outrage as a set designer on Cliff Michelmore’s show. “They’d come and say, ‘Well, little man, what patterns have you got for me today?’ I’d say, you know, ‘F*** you.’ ”
More was to follow – he was sacked by Rediffusion for changing his mind too often: “The guy who fired me later came and asked me for a job.” By the time he got to Hollywood in the 70s, Scott had lost any fear of execs or actors. And today, as he confidently awaits the success of Taboo, he is just as assured. “I’ve learnt to breathe deep and rein in,” he says as we pull up at the airport. “There are always the moments when you think, ‘Holy s**t.’ But then you never show it. Never.”
Taboo begins tonight at 9.15pm on BBC1