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 BBC America 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.

The film also largely ignores the homophobia which played a major part in Kitty’s rejection of Nan—an omission that blunts the story’s realism and makes it seem more like a gaudy melodrama. It seems that the process of adapting the novel to the small screen meant the elimination of many of the more serious elements of the story—including the ending, which differs from the novel in a surprising but not un-satisfying way.

Keeley Hawes delivers a fine performance as Kitty Butler, and her combination of femininity and magnetic charm is the true embodiment of the fantasy of Kitty Butler that Nan is drawn to. Early in the miniseries when Kitty offers a red rose to a blushing Nan Astley at the end of her stage set, Hawes is the perfect combination of Marlene Dietrich glamour (reminding us that a woman in a well-cut tuxedo is irresistible) and subtle lesbian lust.

While Rachael Stirling (who is also, by the way, the daughter of Diana Rigg, a.k.a. Emma Peel) does an admirable job playing Nan, she unfortunately falls short when it comes to playing up Nan’s butchness. The Nan Astley of the novel is tall, lanky, and most definitely passes as a man. In the book, when she is first dressed up as a boy to join Kitty on stage, Walter Bliss declares that she looks too much like a boy, and has her suit tailored to mimic a woman’s hips and bust so that the audience has no chance to mistake her for a man.

Rachael Stirling, however, is undeniably feminine, and although she makes an effort to walk like a man, she doesn’t ever quite succeed. Although her husky voice is perfectly suited for this role, she is handicapped by costuming and make-up (ever-present eyeliner and lipstick) that constantly mark her as a pretty woman. This effectively mutes Nan’s masculinity, and reminds us once again that butch women are very rarely seen on television or in films.

The fact that the BBC version was both written and directed by men makes me wonder if that is the reason that Nan remains fairly femme, as female masculinity in a lesbian context is often threatening to men. The screenwriter, Andrew Davies, is well-known for his adaptations of Bridget Jones’s Diary and the acclaimed BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, and his adaptation of Tipping the Velvet remains true to the general story in the novel.

But director Geoffrey Sax, who has mostly directed television movies in the U.K., is too heavy-handed in his usage of visual symbolism to summarize Nan’s emotional state. In one instance, just before Nan and Kitty first kiss, a flame leaps up from the bottom of the screen to remind us of—one assumes—their fiery passion.

Unfortunately, Sax’s direction fails to turn up the heat in the love scenes, which mostly resemble soft-core straight porn’s version of lesbian love-making. Although some of the scenes are sweet and romantic, complete with golden lighting and soft music, they lack the raw hunger that leapt from the pages of Sarah Waters’s novel. In Nan’s first experience with the dildo and Diana, the circus music inexplicably returns, making an extremely erotic encounter more of a laughable romp. And Nan and Flo’s relationship is painted as a very tender and innocent one, rather than the more experienced and savvy one of the novel.

Finally, many of these love scenes are marred by an almost unforgivable sin: the tongue-on-teeth kiss patented by the porn industry. It’s clear that the director didn’t know anything about how lesbians make love, much less how they have sex. But making a filmed version of any novel automatically sets the finished product up for criticism, because it is virtually impossible to match every reader’s individual expectations.

If you have not read Tipping the Velvet, the BBC version will be very entertaining and romantic. The sets and costumes are fantastic, and Keeley Hawes alone is worth watching. The BBC is also to be applauded for making a miniseries out of Tipping the Velvet, which is an unapologetically lesbian novel. For those who have read the novel, it’s important to watch the BBC version with the knowledge that it would be extremely difficult to recreate the vivid world that Sarah Waters created. And if you’re anything like me, watching the miniseries will prompt you to re-read the book, which is absolutely, unforgettably delicious.

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