TV UK, 4 October

Tipping the Velvet is about a young Victorian woman's struggle for freedom - and not just from her corset.

Dolan Cummings

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In reviewing Tipping the Velvet (BBC2, starts Wednesday at 9pm) I have resolved not to use the terms ‘lesbian Victoriana’, ‘Sapphic romp’, ‘Dickensian dykes’ or any of the other much ruder ones I keep thinking of without meaning to. It isn’t entirely my fault, since even the title is rude (use your imagination).

The drama is adapted from the novel by Sarah Waters, whose latest novel Fingersmith (see?) has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize (1). Lesbianism aside, Tipping the Velvet is really about a young woman’s struggle for freedom, and not just from her corset. Nan Astley is an oyster girl from Whitstable in the 1890s, but she’s never really lived until a fetching male impersonator shows up at the local music hall.

Kitty Butler steals Nan’s heart, as well as the first episode of Tipping the Velvet, with her cocky onstage persona and winning offstage charm. But by the second episode Nan has developed into a fantastic character in her own right, played by Rachael Stirling with a wonderful chesty voice that neatly combines androgyny with innocence.

Apart from Kitty’s own appeal, Nan is attracted by the idea that a girl can swagger like a boy, flouting convention and making up her own rules. As the story develops, she learns that life on the wild side can be suffocating, too. If she thinks at first that the world of showbusiness is her oyster, she soon discovers that there is something fishy about it – and not just in a good way. There are plenty of niches for an unusual girl like Nan, but not so many that allow her to be a fully human being.

This is a good story realised with humour and imagination: it is much more than a conventional period piece with a twist. The screenplay is by Andrew Davies, who has adapted a million classic novels for the BBC, including Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders, and Wives and Daughters. He also did ITV’s contemporary take on Othello last year (2).

Inevitably there will be debate about just how ‘groundbreaking’ Tipping the Velvet is, and attention will focus on the sex scenes, and in particular the use of a ridiculous gadget in episode two. In future documentaries about sex on TV we will be reminded that ‘in 2002, British viewers were exposed for the first time to…’. But this is a childish way to measure innovation. In fact, what is exciting about Tipping the Velvet is the unfamiliar atmosphere and characters it conjures. This is in the script, the direction, and even the music, some of which is by Adrian Johnston, and some of which is Victorian.

Alexei Sayle, who makes an appearance as a theatrical agent, once did a skit about music hall in which he argued that of all the reasons suggested for music hall’s decline, the most convincing is that it was crap. He has a point, and this is a bit of a handicap for Tipping the Velvet. Apart from the closing song, ‘It’s only human nature’, which at least is witty in this context, the show stuff is dire, and it takes a leap of imagination to believe that anyone could find it entertaining. Victorians were strange in many ways.

It is not hard to imagine Ricky Gervais, or at least his alterego David Brent, strutting his stuff onstage at the music hall. The new series of The Office (BBC2, Mondays at 10pm) opened last week in typically cringe-making fashion with Brent trying to win over the new staff with his desperate attempts at humour.

Perhaps even sadder is Tim, whose promotion might turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened to him. In the last series he was clearly stuck in a rut, and was harbouring dreams of university. Now he has decided to make a go of it in the paper business, with possibly disastrous consequences for his soul. It will be interesting to see whether he makes a bid for freedom in the course of the new series.

Sadly for him, though, experimenting with lesbianism just isn’t an option.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See my review of Fingersmith on Culture Wars.

(2) See TV UK, Christmas 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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