From the corset kings of the world, the BBC, comes an adaptation
so lush that it might just rival the 1996 remake of
as my favourite costume drama of all time.
It comes as no surprise that the two have the same writer, Andrew
Davies, who seems to have a knack for visualising characters from
page to screen, specifically female characters. (Davies is responsible
for such brilliant adaptations as
and to name just a few.)
In my eyes, Nancy Astley now belongs in the same pantheon of
English literary heroines as Elizabeth Bennett or Mirah Lapidoth.
The fact that she's a Tom, a nineteenth century lesbian, just
makes her everything I always wanted Elizabeth Bennett to be.
Nancy Astley (Rachael Sterling), an oyster girl from a seaside
village, is thrilled when she goes to see a caberet one night
and sees the act of Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes), a daring male
impersonator. Nan goes back night after night to see Kitty perform.
Soon Kitty not only notices Nan but invites her backstage where
Nan quickly becomes Kitty's closest friend and confidante. The
fact that Nan wants more is obvious but their relationship is
initially a platonic one, of a sort.
When Kitty's act moves to the London stage Kitty asks Nan to
come with her. Nan agrees gleefully and at first acts as Kitty's
dresser. After a while they develop a successful double-act and
Nan King the stage actress is born. Along with their newfound
partnership onstage, the two finally admit to each other their
longstanding passion and a secret affair is born. At the first
touch of Kitty's lips Nancy realises something she's always known
- that only women will ever satisfy her lusts and desires.
After Kitty betrays her and marries their manager, Walter, Nan
leaves abruptly and begins to live the life of a rent boy - dressing
as a man and giving men blow-jobs for a sovereign each. She eventually
begins to live life dressed in men's clothing and even fools herself
into thinking that she's happy. Then she meets Florance (the amazing
Jodhi May), a woman she thinks perhaps she can develop a friendship
with. She finds herself unable to lie to Florance, but also too
ashamed to tell the truth, so she abandons Florance and runs away
One night during a dangerously bungled trick Nan is rescued by
a mysterious woman in a carriage. Her name is Diana (Anna Chancellor)
and she is rich and part of an elite and decadant world of mistresses
and their lesbian lovers. Nancy becomes Diana's toy boy, little
more than a sex slave, losing all sense of herself in the process.
This part of the story is written deliciously well and filmed
with an almost grotesque fervour for detail. Money and class merely
act as masks for the sick and perverted nature of Diana's society.
You can taste Nancy's despair while also feeling the lust and
sorrow that both attract her to and repel her from Diana's world.
After years of subservience Nancy grows tired of the chains that
bind her to Diana. One chance evening at the theatre Nancy sees
Kitty again in her new act and something changes inside her. She
rebels from Diana and is viciously thrown from her life of privilege
into a world of poverty and starvation, walking the streets with
nothing but the clothes she wears.
Finally, desperate and near-death, Nancy finds Florance again
and throws herself on her mercy. Since they last met Florance
has experienced some tragedy of her own and initially doesn't
welcome Nancy's reappearance in her life. Nancy is determined
and resolves to make herself indispensible to the family. Reluctantly
Florance allows her to stay. Gradually, with small, painful steps,
Nancy and Florance discover each other.
Sarah Waters has written a novel so brilliantly conceived and
detail-rich that any filmed version wa salways going to be a risky
affair, but this adaptation is a triumph. The sex in
is forthright, thrilling and explicit in a way
that television has never been before. I thought I was experiencing
a revelation in part one when Kitty and Nan embarked upon their
romantic life together with lustful abandon.
When part two rolled around and Nan walked out of the bedroom
complete with dildo strapped around her waist while Diana Lethaby
looked lustfully on, my eyes nearly bugged out of my head. Part
three's delicate, exploratory romance between Florance and Nancy
was the highlight though, with its nuanced lighting and gentle,
artful lovemaking. I bet when they were making stodgy Shakespeare
adaptations in the fifties the powers that be at the BBC never
thought costume drama would ever come to this.
Even the inevitable changes that were made from the book to the
TV series seemed to me like enhancements. The ending, with Nan's
return to the stage and rediscovering a life of her own, is a
perfect example of a change that was made that really worked for
the TV series. Kitty's reappearance and the final temptation of
Nan was played to perfection, and while I never really doubted
the outcome I was on the edge of my seat nonetheless. Nancy's
time as a rent-boy could possibly have been played a little less
for laughs and more seriously as reflected in the book, but that's
a small criticism that would mean nothing if you haven't waded
through Waters' lengthy tome.
Especially in its theatre and boudoir sequences
seems to exist in that same colourful fantasy
world as Luhrmann's , but it is infinitely more serious than it appears. It's
a gripping drama and a satisfying bodice-ripper all in one. Sarah
Waters and Andrew Davies are both writing talents to be treasured.
While all the fuss was about the steam generated between Rachael
Stirling and Keeley Hawes(and well deserved fuss it was too!),
for me personally I think it was Stirling and May who had the
exceptional chemistry. And wasn't I both embarrassed and surprised
to learn exactly what tipping the velvet means? Oh my. It was
all just first rate, a genuine surprise and a welcome departure
from the usual costume drama fare.
NOTE: For American viewers, the version shown
on BBC America was cut to shreds by censors and is seriously not
worth seeing. Make sure you get hold of the original uncut version
for the full experience.
Got a comment? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org