“ Genre: Television - Tipping the Velvet / Theatrical Release: 2002 / Director: Geoffrey Sax / Actors: Rachael Stirling, Keeley Hawes ... / DVD released 27 January, 2004 at Acorn Media / Features of the DVD: Anamorphic, Closed-captioned, Colour, Dolby, DVD-Video, Widescreen, NTSC „
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(BIG spoilers ahead.)
How can I begin to chronicle my experiences with Tipping the Velvet? Though by now this title is infamous with almost everyone born before 2005, just to clarify, Tipping the Velvet is a 3 episode miniseries by the BBC based on the eponymous book by Sarah Waters. Set in Victorian England, it focuses on the life and exploits of a young girl called Nan Astley as she becomes more involved in the underground lesbian world of London.
I watched this series with my friend, as a part of our ongoing marathon of "L"-related movies, tv shows and podcasts. We'd watched Fingersmith previously, another BBC adaption of a Sarah Waters novel with similar themes, but nothing prepared me for TTV.
Known for its "raunchy" (the adjective every reviewer of this show seems to use) sex scenes, according to the Wikipedia page, both author and director "expressed concerned about the use of dildos" in the series, which just goes to highlight TTV's infamy. However, Tipping the Velvet is more than the BBC's bash at period pornography - it tries to be the coming of age story of a young girl from a disadvantaged family. Nan is an oyster-girl (one of many cringe-worthy innuendos throughout) who lives with her parents and her older sister in Whitstable. At the start of the first episode she is "fooling around" with her boyfriend (a very upset-looking Benedict Cumberbatch a.k.a. Sherlock Homes) and we are treated to a mental narration of her wondering why Benedict - sorry, Freddy - doesn't do it for her. Oh, what you have in store for you, Nan! While going to a travelling show she falls for a male-impersonator, played by Keeley Hawes, a.k.a. Miss Boots No. 7, who throws a rose at her, rather like a drag king Tuxedo Mask from the Sailor Moon franchise.
I failed to connect to Nan on an empathetic level, due to one relatively-tiny facet of the actress playing her: her voice. She sounds like a crooning manatee. Rachael Sterling's voice is certainly distinctive, but in this miniseries, she is distracting, and her acting, in my opinion, is wooden at best. Keeley Hawes is better as Kitty Butler (more innuendo), though far too feminine and pretty to pass for a male impersonator as the plot has us believe. Johdi May, who plays Florence, is much better cast, but again, Anna Chancellor as Diana Lethaby... It's a matter of taste, I suppose, but I felt the casting of this miniseries could have been a lot better.
The production values of Tipping the Velvet are typical for a BBC period drama - ruffles rustling, lace crinkling, brocade dripping with gold stitches - the clothes, at least, are fantastic. The backdrops, too, are believable - the creaking stairs of the flat Nan stays in, the clopping hooves of the horse and carriages in the streets. It's a feat to be able to make backdrops that can melt and give way to the action and dialogue while still adding to the atmosphere.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for the music. The music is just...bad. It's like a jumper with lumpy bits of wool that doesn't fit right and maybe only has one sleeve. There is one song used throughout that my friend referred to as "the finding pencil" song, a.k.a. a song that would fit perfectly to a short indie film about a man losing his pencil - but used to set a scene in Victorian London? Not a great fit.
The worst musical numbers - just horrifyingly bad - are Nan and Kitty's performance pieces, both dressed as men, pretending to be brothers picking up girls. This is ostensibly the height of entertainment in London - obviously the Victorians didn't have the Internet.
This leaves me to pass judgement on the plot. The author of Sugar Rush (another lesbian themed novel/tv series) apparently wrote the entire book over a weekend, while perpetually drunk. I would not be surprised if Sarah Waters (and indeed, the scriptwriter) did the same.
The plot is...a mess. It's hard to believe. It gives me indigestion. Nan, a seventeen year old daughter to a fisherman and waitress of an oyster bar (with the voice of a manatee), falls for a drag king played by Ms. No. 7 and they go to London to pretend to be brothers on stage in a sort of gender-bent X Factor performance. Ms. No. 7 then drops the revelation that she's entering a sham marriage with someone with a huge mustache and Nan is left to lie and cry after her. Picking herself up - motivated by money - she then prostitutes herself dressed as a young boy to older men. Cue a montage of reactions to various penises she presumably then serviced. While doing this, she is promptly abducted by a dominatrix (called Mrs LEATHERby), kept as a sex-pet, spray-painted gold and made to wear a dildo to parties. Who can blame her for then running away with a maid played by Sally Hawkins (the lead from Fingersmith... no character overlap, unfortunately). Evil Sally Hawkins steals her money, so Nan has a starvation montage and walks across London barefoot to be BFFs with Florence, who she met once before, literally, just once - Nan must have the memory of an elephant as well as the voice of one - and they, to paraphrase, live happily ever after as covert lesbians who believe in socialism.
How am I meant to feel?
Tipping the Velvet had a lot of humour that propelled the plot along somewhat, but it wasn't enough to stop the series feeling as jarring as when Nan took off her hairpiece in front of her sister. Though this may disappoint some, I'm sure, it also wasn't as "raunchy" as I was expecting. I struggle to say that Tipping the Velvet was worth watching, but it provided many an incredulous laugh or ten as well as appreciation of the costumes and sets the BBC provided.
This is a BBC adaptation of the novel by Sarah Waters, which was screened in 3 parts and follows the story of a young Oyster girl from Whitstable.
We see Nan in her everyday life, clearly bored by her routine and not understanding what is missing. That is until she goes to the Theatre and sees Kitty Butler performing as a boy. She becomes obsessed with watching the show, and goes every night until Kitty finally asks to see her after the show one night. The girls become friends, and Nan is invited to join Kitty in London where she will open a bigger show.
Nan moves to London with Kitty, where their relationship finally progresses - however Nan is in for heartbreak, and we leave this part of the story with her running away from her lover.
The second part of the story sees Nan involving herself in some unsavoury past times to get money, and living in London with a lady and her daughter. She gets picked up by an elder lady, Diana, who takes her into her stately home and introduces her to a darker side of society.
In the third and final part of Tipping the Velvet Nan has escaped from the clutches of Diana, and made her way back to London, where she finds two friends in a brother and sister who help women in need. She makes herself indispensable, and soon becomes part of the family. In this final part we see Nan find happiness, and acceptance with her life, leaving all the darkness behind.
This is a funny, moving, and passionate story, and an excellent adaptation of the original book.
I avoided watching this for absolutely ages, simply because I assumed it would be overly 'feminist'. I am happy to say I was so very wrong! The BBC has a strong history of producing excellent historical dramas, and this is by far one of the very best they have produced. It is very well cast, well produced, racy enough to be interesting, but not gratuitously shocking.
The series is based on the popular novel 'Tipping the Velvet' by Sarah Waters. Nan King is the youngest daughter of a family who run an Oyster Parlour, but she is restless and ill at ease with her future. It isn't until she sees actress Kitty Butler doing her male impressionist act that she realises she is in love with the theatre - and with Kitty. Soon, Nan becomes involved with Kitty, leaves her family and moves to London where she immerses herself in the world of theatre and of 1890s sexual libertinism. Although her relationship with Kitty does not lasy, Nan moved through a series of adventures, learning who she is and what she wants, before she finally finds happiness.
Rachel Stirling is one of my favorite British actresses, and she is brilliant as Nan King. As well as being beautiful in the part, she has a gift for expression that adds a wonderful touch of burlesque to the part, which brings the era vividly to life. She is backed up thoughout the series by a cast of stirling performers, and not one of the performances was lacking.
While there are numerous explicit scenes throughout, the series did not give in to the temptation to overplay the titilation element; there is no gratuitous lesbianism, but rather a touching, sensitive, and wonderfully humerous exploration of self-discovery. And, what pleased me most of all, the piece is historically accurate as well as being a fantastic story.
I would highly recommend this series to anyone, whether or not they have read the book.
The DVD of tipping the velvet features the three hour long episodes broadcast on the BBC, along with bonus features of a stills gallery and an interview with andrew davies (adapter) and author Sarah Waters.
Set in England in the 1890's, the story follows the tale of an Oyster girl, Nan (Rachel Stirling) , who falls for Kitty Butler, played by Keeley Hawes, a male impersonator working on the stage. After visiting the show over and over again, Nan is invited to meet Kitty, who invites her to work for her in London. Here they begin a lesbian love affair behind closed doors, as Nan works as Kitty's dresser, until her talent is revealled and they perform together as a double act.
However, things take a turn for the worse for Nan, as her sister disowns her after discovering her lesbian tendancies, and upon returning to London early catches Kitty in bed with the manager.
The story follows Nan's pursuit of true love whilst discovering and embracing her sexuality through some sometimes perilous routes.
This book passed me by, despite it being essential lesbian reading! I did however read Fingersmith, Sarah Walters later work, and was inspired to buy the DVD of Tipping the Velvet. Sarah Walters is a writer with clout. Not only is she famous in the lesbian world, but has cone the unthinkable and broken the mainstream market too.
In this epic period drama set in the 1880s, we follow the fortunes of Nan, a poor Oyster worker who begins happily courting a nice young man. However thing begin to change when she visits a theatre and falls instantly for Kitty, one of the performers. The way the BBC have captured this love from a far is nothing short of beautiful. The two girls meet and become close. Soon, they are performing together and living in London. Disaster strikes when Nan returns to find Kitty in bed with a man, who she eventually marries.
From then on, we follow Nan through a life of poverty, prostitution, new loves and wealth. The eternal question reigns throughout who is her true love. I will not spoil it by telling you here!
The first and last episodes are loving, sweet, funny and amusing. The second episode is where all the sex lies and although it is very well done, I wouldnt watch it with my mother in the room. It is very hot! Overall, this is a great series and does justice to a very well written book, if not totally faithful to the original plot. The extras are really good on this DVD too.
I first became interested in Sarah Waters in 2004 when the BBC were advertising the dramatisation of FingerSmith. I adored this clever period drama and was pleased when I came across the book FingerSmith in a charity shop. This wonderful book has since become one of my all time favourites and I was compelled to read more. So, at the start of this year I bought Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters debut novel and soon after also hired the BBC dramatisation, the subject matter of this review.
Tipping the Velvet
Tipping the Velvet, was published in 1998 and the BBC adaptation was originally aired in 2002 in three hourly episodes on BBC2. The series was actually produced by independent company Sally Head Productions and was directed by Geoffrey Sax. Tipping the Velvet is typical to Sarah Waters work and deals with lesbianism in the 19th century. The term Tipping the Velvet is actually slang for cunnilingus, a term which was genuinely used during this period.
Set in the 1880s over a period of several years, Tipping the Velvet tells the tale of Nancy Astley or Nan(played by Rachael Stirling) throughout three periods of her life. We first meet Nan when she is around 19 living in Whitstable where her family runs an Oyster House. Nan is happy and is courting a young man. However, everything changes when she goes to see a show one night. The star of the act is Kitty (played by Keeley Hawes), a young lady of Nans age who performs as a male impersonator. Nan falls in love with Kitty and starts visiting the theatre nearly every night. Kitty notices Nan sitting in the same spot every night and requests they meet. The two girls become close and when Kitty is asked by Walter Bliss to perform in London she asks Nan to go with her as her dresser.
In London the two girls become secret lovers and eventually they join up as a double act on the stage pulling in big crowds and making a lot of money. Nan has never been happier. But then a year after leaving Whitstable she finally returns for a trip home, a trip that culminates in disaster. She returns early to surprise Kitty but finds her in bed with Walter Bliss, their agent, whom Kitty has decided to marry for appearances sake.
These events conclude the first episode of the series and I intend to give away less of the second and third. In the second Nan, who has left Kitty ends up working the Street performing oral sex on men who think she is a young lad. It is on the streets that she comes across Diana Lethaby (played by Anna Chancellor), a wealthy and eccentric lesbian who sees through Nans costume. Diana employs Nan to sexually service her and to live in her luxury London home under her rule. Things go smoothly for a while but when Diana eventually throws Nan out she finds herself penniless and alone on the streets once more. This concludes the second series. In the third Nan is able to find shelter with a women she has met only once before and it is in this house that she is able to find happiness with Florence Banner (played by Jodhi May).
Im afraid to say that overall I was disappointed with Tipping the Velvet and I have been surprised to find that many reviewers on Ciao, Dooyoo and elsewhere online have given the series five stars. My main issue with the adaptation is the fact that the producers have tried to make it somewhat quirky and funny when the book doesnt come across this way. Irritating carnival style music is played throughout which detracts from the storyline. I can see how the producers decided this was a good idea given that much of the start of the story takes place in the theatre but in my opinion it doesnt work at all. This odd comic theme even persists throughout the more intimately touching and sexual scenes which I dont think was necessary and which really spoilt things for me. I also thought that Nan was quite an annoying character in the series and this wasnt at all how I saw her in the book.
That said, the series is an interesting portrayal of Victorian culture, particularly with respect to issues relating to homosexuality. The costumes and the setting are exceptional and the characters are generally well casted. Additionally, the series is a generally accurate depiction of the book which these days is quite rare.
Perhaps my personal reservations stem primarily from the fact that I much preferred the book and the drama of FingerSmith over Tipping the Velvet. Still, I cant bring myself to give this series more than three stars. Still, if you are interested in the work of Sarah Waters and fancy a period drama with a twist then give this a try.
The series is fairly sexual in nature and is rated 15, although I personally wonder if perhaps a rating of 18 would have been more appropriate. Be warned if you read the book that the novel is much more sexually descriptive, far more than FingerSmith.
Special features on the DVD include a seven minute interview with Sarah Waters and screen writer Andrew Davis which is worth a watch. The only other features is the photo gallery, which you could probably live without seeing.
Tipping the Velvet is available to purchase on Amazon from £5 new or from £3.40 second hand via the market place. The series can also be hired online from Lovefilms.com.
178 minutes long - 3 x's one hour episodes.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies describes Tipping the Velvet, his adaptation of Sarah Waters's acclaimed novel of lesbian love, betrayal and redemption in Victorian England, as "Pride and Prejudice with dirty bits". This three-part BBC production chronicles with relish the story of Nan Astley (Rachael Stirling, the ravishing image of her mother, Diana Rigg), barely 18, and certain that life holds more for her than her oyster girl's existence. "You'll meet someone who'll have your head spinning and your legs turning to jelly", her sister promises. That someone surprisingly turns out to be "gay and bold" Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes), a music-hall entertainer with whom Nan falls instantly, and swooningly, in love. Nan follows her to London, where, as a double act, they become the toast of London, until Kitty's "marriage of convenience" breaks up the act and Nan's heart. The outcast Nan, decked out in Victor/Victoria duds, becomes a streetwalker, and then "tart" to the aptly named Diana Leatherby (Anna Chancellor). This affair, too, comes to "a bad end" as a destitute Nan is deposited back on the streets, where she insinuates herself into the lives of Florence (Jodhi May), a social worker, and her socialist brother. Is Nan "too spoiled and stained for love"? Will she risk her blossoming relationship with Florence when Kitty inevitably returns to rekindle their affair? Nan's couplings, while tastefully done, do carry what Waters calls "a queer erotic charge". They are graphic by BBC standards. But the sterling writing and performances will captivate even the most sensitive viewers, making this groundbreaking mini-series, to quote one character, "a delightful evening... a rare treat". --Donald Liebenson