TV Review: Tipping the Velvet

“You seem so very gay and bold”

I didn’t watch this 2002 television adaptation of Sarah Waters’ debut novel Tipping the Velvet nor had I read the book so this was all unchartered territory for me. I vaguely remembered a bit of a Daily Mail-style hoohah so I was a little surprised at the relative tameness of the first episode but then after getting through the second, I can see why an eyebrow might have been raised – I doubt I’ll see Anna Chancellor in quite the same light! Andrew Davies’ had the unenviable task of condensing Water’s seven year story of sexual and self-discovery into a three hour television script and manages the job fairly well, though with a rip-roaring pace that doesn’t always quite allow the story enough time to breathe.

The story centres on Nancy Astley, a young woman who works as an oyster-girl in her father’s Whitstable restaurant but who lacks a certain fulfilment in her life as a relationship with a local boy is failing to make her weak at the knees. What does capture her attention though is the arrival of a male impersonator Kitty Butler whose performances leave her transfixed and ultimately open up a whole new world for Nan, but a world that is full of as much heartbreak as love, as much pain as pleasure, as she finds herself on the stage, on the street, on a leash, on her knees, on an incredible journey.

Each episode sees Rachael Stirling’s Nan centring her life on one key relationship: Keeley Hawes’ Kitty is her first love and the first to break her heart as their dizzyingly fast lifestyle comes crashing to a halt; the ever-excellent Anna Chancellor as Diana rescues Nan from desperation only to entrap her in a much more gilded cage, making her a fascinating study in sexual ownership and control; and presence of Jodhi May’s kindly Florence offers the potential of a happy ending but there’s many loose ends to be tied up. 

Stirling is very good, though I wasn’t a fan of the narrative device, at showing the indomitable spirit of Nan who strides boldly on even in the worse of situations, but the speed with which the story goes means that we rarely get a chance to see the relationships in her life develop in any interesting or meaningful manner, time just keeps on rushing by which slightly undermines the depth of feeling that is meant to be being portrayed. The one truly affecting strand is Nan’s acceptance of herself as a lesbian and slowly gaining the confidence to live the life that she wants and in the way she wants.

The nature of the show and its age mean that there’s quite a lot of a fun to be had in spotting familiar theatrical faces. Benedict Cumberbatch and Sally Hawkins both appear with a geeky youthfulness, Dean Lennox Kelly is as delectable as ever (perhaps more so given his leanings here!) and Janet Henfrey is epic as a lascivious Sapphic grandee. There’s genuinely good work from Monica Dolan though, as Nan’s sister whose simmering vicious emotion is rooted in the frustration of not being able to escape the family life in a similar way as much as in lesbophobia. 

Tipping the Velvet was a sillier, even trashier thing than I was expecting (some may love the shooting star moment but I thought it was tacky) but it was all rather watchable and generally well performed. I loved seeing Wilton’s Music Hall pop up as a venue for one of the cabaret acts and some key performances make it well worth a watch if you haven’t already. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to watch it again anytime soon though.

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