Shiny Shelf


Tipping the Velvet

By Mags L Halliday on 18 October 2002

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Somewhere, there’s a checklist of what all period TV drama must contain. Tipping the Velvet checks all the boxes and then some.

Firstly, it’s an adaptation of a novel by a woman set in period that has been adapted by Andrew ‘Pride & Prejudice’ Davies. Secondly, it’s about a love affair that breaks social boundaries (either class or, in this instance, gender). Thirdly, it’s being sold as “groundbreaking drama” when anyone with even a quarter of a brain can see it’s just a Catherine Cookson story dressed up in some hot lesbian action togs.

This is before we even get into the signifiers of ‘Victorian period drama’: the musical hall acts (admittedly, Johnny Vegas is inspired in a cameo); the Eliza-Doolittle in a scummy job rising above her station; the Caf? Royal; the hansom cabs; the ‘risque’ innuendo; the steam trains; the grubby street urchins; the heaving bodices ripe for the ripping. There is no question, ‘Tipping the Velvet’ is dripping in clich?s. Not that makes its actually bad, just utterly unsurprising.

The direction, by Geoffrey Sax, is lively – the best thing by far. Time is speeded up, cut about and pasted back together so that we see a routine from first rehearsal to first night, interwoven. Due to the subject matter (a love affair in theatrical red velvet) this naturally recalls Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, but the same sort of hyper-real direction was also used to good effect in last year’s BBC adaptation of Crime & Punishment (yes, I’ll confess – I like watching literary adaptations).

The sex scenes, for which it has gained so much publicity (I especially liked the warning before it started that it contained ’scenes of a sexual nature’ – as if anyone tuning in wasn’t aware of that), were shot as ’straight’ sex scenes. That this is still seen as ‘groundbreaking drama’ fifteen years after ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ is merely an indication that lesbian sex is still perceived as somehow more ‘naughty’ than straight sex. The thing to do, when judging ‘Tipping the Velvet’, is to neither credit nor discredit it for its sexual content but to look at how it works as a drama. After all, that is what Davies and his colleagues want us to do, as they repeatedly tell us (contradicting the advertising which has all been along the line of “lesbians! Having sex!”). Future episodes promise more explicit action – again selling it as sex whilst claiming the sex is not the important thing. So, how does it stand up as a drama?

The problem really, lies with three things: Rachel Sterling, who plays the heroine Nan Astley, has all the lazy acting skills of Martine McCutcheon and her ilk (which is even more annoying as she’s the daughter of Diana Rigg); Nan’s voice-over is leaden and often unnecessary (such as the moment where, looking tormented as Kitty snuggles up when Nan wants more, the voice over tells us “we were friends but I wanted to be so much more”) and, most damningly of all, the plot contains no twists. A young naive girl falls for an older, worldly-wise person with whom she begins an illicit affair, breaks with her family over the relationship and then discovers her lover has another. Cue some running away and social ruin, before finding true love. Replace the – admittedly great – Kitty (Keeley Hawes) with a man and you do indeed have a Catherine Cookson novel disguised beneath the cross-dressing.

‘Tipping the Velvet’ is fun, an entertaining clich?-drenched musical hall turn of a drama. But it’s not ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘provocative’. Roll on the BBC’s Danial Deronda and ITV’s Dr Zhivago (both, oh surprise, adapted by Andrew Davies).


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