Tipping the Velvet is something new for American television: a lesbian coming-of-age drama. And the medium is better for it.
The three-night miniseries starting tonight on BBC America (not available on all cable systems) is superior to any made-for-TV movie or miniseries the networks offered during May sweeps. Outstanding writing and sure-handed direction not only bring new insight to a historical period remembered mostly through the haze of cliche, but also enrich our notion of appropriate literary heroes and heroines. And, by the way, in three hours, there is not one five-minute stretch that doesn't amuse, entertain, engage or challenge.
Set in 1890s Victorian England, Tipping the Velvet tells the story of Nan Astley (Rachael Stirling), a young woman who works in her parents' oyster parlor in the seaside community of Whitstable. As Nan explains in voiceover, she has a boyfriend, but is unsure of her feelings toward him - especially the lack of passion she feels toward the young man.
And, then, one night Nan goes to the music hall and finds more passion than she can handle in her attraction to a strikingly beautiful entertainer, Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes), who performs as a male impersonator. Nan returns to the music hall night after night to see Kitty until the performer notices her and extends an invitation to visit backstage. When Kitty offers Nan the chance to accompany her to London as her dresser, the adventure begins.
Based on Sarah Waters' novel of the same title, which was nominated for the prestigious Booker literary prize, Tipping the Velvet chronicles Nan's journey of love-found-and-lost-and-found-again through a Victorian England at odds with most popular recollections of that time and place. This is a world constructed from underground literature - personal letters, memoirs, illicit fiction. It's full of sexual expression of all kinds, and Nan encounters most of it.
Like the novel, this BBC adaptation challenges traditional notions of gender, relationships and living arrangements. Some viewers might not approve of all the liaisons and relationships into which Nan enters, but the road to true love is rarely straight, fast and narrow - at least not when the storyteller is as skilled as screenwriter Andrew Davies.
In adapting Waters' novel, Davies is working with several established literary formulas, from the bildungsroman (novel of moral education) to the hero quest. And, while neither he nor Waters is the first to put a woman in the lead role of those traditionally male narratives, no one does it with quite the sauce and style of Davies. Exhibit A: his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Exhibit B: his screenplay for Bridget Jones's Diary.
But none of it would work without Stirling, the daughter of Diana Rigg, who creates an ongoing sense of innocence and earnestness in her performance of Nan. It's a triumph of acting that wins viewers' hearts as Nan follows the dictates of hers on this provocative and uplifting journey.
Tipping the Velvet
When: Tonight, tomorrow and Sunday at 10 p.m.
Where: BBC America cable channel
In brief: A lesbian coming-of-age drama that's provocative and uplifting.