Valentine’s Day is a day for chocolate, roses, champagne, sentimental cards, and — if you want some women-centric entertainment — Tipping the Velvet.
The 2002 BBC miniseries about a lesbian romance in 1890s London, based on Sarah Waters’s first novel, has just come to BritBox, the digital streaming service from BBC Worldwide and ITV. The series tells the story of Nan Astley, a young woman from the provinces who loses her heart to Kitty Butler, a “male impersonator” and music hall star.
Rachael Stirling (The Bletchley Circle, Snow White and the Huntsman, Their Finest) portrays Nan, and Keeley Hawes (Upstairs Downstairs, The Durrells in Corfu) plays Kitty. Also in the cast are Anna Chancellor, Jodhi May, Alexei Sale, John Bowe, and a couple of stars in the making — Sally Hawkins and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies, known for Bridget Jones’s Diary, the 2008 version of Brideshead Revisited, and numerous British miniseries, adapted Waters’s novel, and Geoffrey Sax (Victoria, Christopher and His Kind) directed the series.
Authors aren’t always pleased with screen versions of their work, but Waters has nothing but good to say about the treatment of Tipping the Velvet.
“The adaptation was a wonderful experience for me,” she tells The Advocate via email from London. “It was a fascinating process to be part of; there was a great team of people involved; it raised my profile enormously and took the story of Tipping the Velvet to a huge new audience. Most of all, I loved — and still love — the fact that the series stays true to the upbeat lesbian rompiness of the novel. It’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s romantic — and it puts lesbians center stage the entire time. We see lesbians quite a lot on mainstream television these days, but they’re often in minor or secondary roles — dispensable roles, which means they’re vulnerable to being bumped off. So I still enjoy the fact that Tipping is this thoroughly lesbian drama from start to finish.”
Waters was “astonished,” she says, that anyone wanted to bring her novel to the screen. “I was an inexperienced writer with pretty modest ambitions, writing lesbian stories for, I imagined, a largely lesbian readership,” she recalls. “When the producers told me that Andrew Davies was interested in writing the screenplay, I was amazed — he was such a huge name. Then Andrew told me he would only do it if the BBC agreed to keep in all the sex, dildos included, and I thought, This is never going to happen. But I think the BBC saw it as a chance to do something a bit daring — so I guess it suited everyone. I think the only sex they felt they had to leave out was a bit of fisting.” (The title, by the way, is slang for cunnilingus.)
Several Waters’s other novels have been adapted for film or TV, including Fingersmith, Affinity, and The Night Watch. Tipping the Velvet is “the most playful and lighthearted of all my adaptations, because that’s very much the spirit of the book it’s based on,” she says. “My novels since then have been a bit more somber, and the adaptations have been darker or more melancholy. I like them all, though. They’ve had some amazing actors in them: Sally Hawkins, Keeley Hawes, Charles Dance, Imelda Staunton, Claire Foy…”
Hawkins is an Oscar nominee for Best Actress this year for her performance in The Shape of Water, and she was nominated previously for her supporting role in 2013’s Blue Jasmine. “I knew that Sally Hawkins was going to be a star — she was just so brilliant,” Waters recalls. “She was lovely too, and she took her roles in Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith really seriously, doing lots of research — she used to go around the set of Fingersmith with a copy of the novel bristling with underlinings and Post-it notes. I’m so happy that she’s done so well. Every time I see her in a movie now I feel a ridiculous, possessive glow.”
And we can expect more Waters works on the screen. A feature-film adaptation of her 2009 thriller, The Little Stranger, is due out in late summer, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, and Ruth Wilson. It’s directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room), with a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl). “I haven’t seen any edited footage and am longing to,” Waters says. “I visited the filming last year, and it all looked incredible.”
We can also probably look forward to an adaptation of her most recent novel, the lesbian love story The Paying Guests, published in 2014. It’s “in the pipeline,” Waters says, “but it’s very early days, so I won’t say too much about it yet.”
Waters is working on another novel, set in the early 1950s. “It isn’t gay this time — it’s my other passion, rather gothic,” she says. “I’m about two-thirds of the way through the writing process — though I’m such a slow writer that that means I still have another year or so to go. So it won’t be out any time soon, I’m afraid — but it’s definitely well on the way.”
For that we can be grateful, and also for the chance to stream Tipping the Velvet. And if you want tales of love between men for Valentine’s Day, BritBox is also offering, beginning this week, Christopher and His Kind, based on Christopher Isherwood’s memoir of his relationship with a German man in the 1930s, and Against the Law, an adaptation of journalist Peter Wildeblood’s autobiographical tale of his affair with a military man in the 1950s.
Find all of BritBox’s movies and miniseries here, and watch a trailer for Tipping the Velvet below.