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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 9 October, 2002, 16:44 GMT 17:44 UK
Lesbian drama shatters taboos
Florence (Jodhi May), Kitty (Keeley Hawes), Nan (Rachael Astley) and Diana (Anna Chancellor)
The subject matter may raise a few eyebrows

Little more than a century ago, Queen Victoria refused to believe that such a thing as lesbianism existed, and declared it was pointless creating laws against it.

BBC Two's new costume drama Tipping the Velvet strives to tell a contemporary audience that the "love that dare not speak its name" was alive and well in Victoria's time - and was fraught with secrecy, prejudice and ignorance.

This lavish production carries a pedigree tag, based on the novel by Booker-nominated author Sarah Waters, and adapted by renowned television writer Andrew Davies.

Nan Astley (Rachael Stirling)
Nan discovers her sexuality
After his more conventional costume adaptations such as Middlemarch and Vanity Fair, this proved to be a more daring piece of work - but dealt with historical themes that have never before been explored on the small screen.

Our heroine Nan (Rachael Stirling) is a humble oyster girl who dallies with her young man and is unsure of her feelings until she sets eyes on Kitty (Keeley Hawes).

The twists and turns in the story begin here, for Kitty is a male impersonator in the music hall. To us she looks something of a Marlene Dietrich before her time - but the Victorians simply think she puts on a good show.

A sense of gender confusion and role reversal reigns, while Kitty's sister Alice bluntly comments: "People like that don't lead natural lives," but says little else.

As a friendship springs up between the two women, Nan undergoes a slow-burning sexual awakening, and takes off to London with Kitty, where the bright lights and moral flexibility of music hall life coaxes them into a secret life of passion.

Kitty (Keeley Hawes)
The couple lead a double life
On stage they are a pair of short-haired young men who steal a kiss as part of their act, while out of costume they are respectable ladies who wear feminine hair-pieces.

What this drama is bound to be remembered for is the full flowering of the women's relationship, which is frankly depicted and shows "that sort of thing" was not an invention of the modern age.

In the twenty-first century, the prospect of lesbian love on our television screens should not raise any hackles, but is likely to feed a healthy chunk of titillating fodder to some viewers.

For the voyeurs, the majority of this opening episode would have proved a disappointment, as it concentrated on an important and interesting piece of social history wrapped up in an intriguing, engaging story.

But all the good work seemed to fall apart later when we were plunged into televisual sex in all its glory, overwhelming a steady narrative.

Despite the fine tale and good intentions of Tipping The Velvet's makers, it seems a sad inevitability that people around the land will be picking apart the steamy sex scenes rather than the finer points of this drama.

See also:

27 Sep 02 | Review
11 Jun 02 | Wales
10 Nov 98 | Entertainment
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