tipping the velvet

2002

Directed by: Geoffrey Sax

Written by: Andrew Davies

From the corset kings of the world, the BBC, comes an adaptation so lush that it might just rival the 1996 remake of Pride and Prejudice 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 Daniel Deronda, Bridget Jones's Diary, Circle of Friends and Moll Flanders 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 in despair.

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 Tipping the Velvet 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 Tipping the Velvet seems to exist in that same colourful fantasy world as Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, 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 nancyamazon@gmail.com