Review of “Tipping the Velvet”

I first read Tipping the Velvet at the suggestion of a friend, who told me that it was full of “yummy bits.” I began reading it somewhat skeptically, as I have never really been a fan of “lesbian novels,” but Sarah Waters’s erotic and involving tale quickly pulled me in — and yes, the yummy bits were very yummy.

So when I heard that the BBC was making a miniseries out of the novel, I was both intrigued and excited. How would they manage those tasty scenes involving toys and tongues and tarts (oh my)? Although BBCAmerica aired the miniseries in the U.S. last spring, it cut out most of those tasty tidbits, to the frustration of many American viewers.

Now that Tipping the Velvet has been released on DVD, we all have the opportunity to see what aired in the U.K. in 2002.

Tipping the Velvet is both a coming-of-age and a coming-out story, chronicling the adventures of small-town oyster-shucker Nan Astley (Rachael Stirling) in Victorian England. After she falls in love with music hall male-impersonator Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes), Nan follows her to London as her stage dresser and eventually joins her on stage (also dressed as a boy) and in her bed, as her lover.

Nan’s first love dies a melodramatic death when she returns from a trip home to find Kitty in bed with their manager, Walter Bliss (John Bowe).

Fleeing the scene in heartbroken tears, Nan spends several months supporting herself by tricking in the dark alleyways of London — once again dressed as a boy. She is picked up one night by Diana Lethaby (Anna Chancellor), a wealthy woman who takes Nan in as her “tart,” and introduces her to the delights of leather dildos and life as a kept woman. But when Diana discovers Nan in bed with her maid, she is thrown out on the street once again.

This time she turns to Florence Banner (Jodhi May) — a woman she once barely knew — for help, and she convinces Flo to let her join her modest working-class home as a housekeeper.

For those who have read Sarah Waters’s absorbing and dramatic novel, the BBC version will be both satisfying and strangely different. Because it was filmed for television as a three-hour miniseries, the story had to be shortened, making some of the scenes seem oddly rushed — particularly the first time Kitty and Nan kiss.

But because it was filmed for television, the BBC version is also able to show the performances of Kitty Butler and Nan King (Nan’s stage name) in a way that the book cannot.

The scenes of Kitty and Nan singing and dancing on stage are delightful and not only provide a fascinating glimpse of what the music hall might have looked like, but also do an excellent job of telling Kitty and Nan’s love story.

The carnival-like atmosphere of the variety show permeates the majority of the miniseries through its use of vibrant color in set decoration, beautiful Victorian-era costuming, and campy side-show music. This lively feel was very pleasing at first, but as the three-hour drama progressed I found myself increasingly annoyed by the music, which was appropriate for the music hall scenes but seemed entirely out-of-place when it accompanied Nan’s discovery of Kitty and Walter together.

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