Tipping the Velvet (TV series)

Tipping the Velvet is a 2002 BBC television drama serial based on the best-selling debut novel by Sarah Waters of the same name. It originally screened in three episodes on BBC Two and was produced for the BBC by the independent production company Sally Head Productions. It stars Rachael Stirling, Keeley Hawes, and Jodhi May.

Tipping the Velvet
Based onTipping the Velvet (1998)
by Sarah Waters
Written byAndrew Davies
Directed byGeoffrey Sax
StarringRachael Stirling
Keeley Hawes
Anna Chancellor
Jodhi May
Music byAdrian Johnston
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original language(s)English
Producer(s)Georgina Lowe
CinematographyCinders Forsha
Editor(s)Kristina Hetherington
Running time177 minutes (3 parts)
Original release
  • 2002 (2002)

Directed by Geoffrey Sax, the novel was adapted by screenwriter Andrew Davies. The production was made available on DVD by BBC Worldwide soon after broadcast.

Background and development

The BBC had previously aired an adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in 1990 and some other scenes in dramas to follow, but none had been so explicit. Sally Head Productions defended the decision to air the entire programme uncut.[1] Waters was quite surprised that the BBC chose to produce and broadcast a television adaptation that faithfully followed the relish and detail of sexual escapades in the book.[2] Stirling thoroughly enjoyed the role, despite her avowed heterosexuality: "To counteract any hard-core sex within it, there's a huge sense of humour and a huge sense of fun and frivolity and joy of life. It was so utterly believable that you never for a moment thought, "fuck, there's no reason why I'm standing here naked."[3]

Screenwriter Andrew Davies said he was attracted to the story because it featured a girl transitioning into womanhood and it included his interests in Victorian erotica; he compared it to Pride and Prejudice—for which he wrote the BBC screenplay—"with dirty bits".[2] Both Waters and Davies were concerned about the use of dildos in scenes with Diana, but the BBC allowed it. When news releases told of the BBC featuring swearing and sex toys, the Daily Mail reported that viewers began to protest. BBC representatives downplayed the gratuitousness of the story, comparing it to Moll Flanders.[4]

Waters especially appreciated the way Davies interpreted Kitty's ambivalence about being in love with Nan. He wrote the line for her, "I hate the way you make me feel", which according to Waters crystallises Kitty's complicated emotions well.[2] The music in the adaptation was written for the film. Waters wrote song titles but not lyrics in the music references in the novel. For one song, during Kitty and Nan's first performance in the adaptation, Davies wrote a composition that had Kitty show Nan—dressed and performing as brothers—how to pick up girls in the park. It involved Kitty teaching Nan how to kiss, which they do onstage in front of audiences who are watching women, dressed as men, who are in reality having an affair with each other beyond the view of the audience.[2] Waters wrote a similar description as Nan compares their act to their relationship; their sexual encounters to their performance onstage, noting the irony that Kitty insisted on absolute secrecy yet there they performed in front of thousands: "You are too slow—you go too fast—not there, but here—that's good—that's better! It was as if we walked before the crimson curtain, lay down upon the boards and kissed and fondled—and were clapped, and cheered, and paid for it!"[5]


CharacterEpisode 1Episode 2Episode 3
Gully SutherlandJohnny Vegas
Mrs MilneTilly Vosburgh
Ralph BannerHugh Bonneville
FreddyBenedict Cumberbatch
MaryMilly Gregory
Diana Lethaby
Anna Chancellor
Sara Stockbridge
Davy AstleyPeter Kelly
Tony ReevesDean Lennox Kelly
Mrs Jex
Janet Henfrey
Mrs SykesAngela Curran
ElsieJanet Fullerlove
Annie PriceDiane Beck
Walter Bliss
John Bowe
Mrs AstleyAnnie Hulley
CyrilLouis Alderton
Zena Blake
Sally Hawkins
Kitty Butler
Keeley Hawes
Nan Astley
Rachael Stirling
Mrs Denby
Bernice Stegers
Tricky ReevesJim McManus
Renter AlicePaul Ready
Alice AstleyMonica Dolan
Grace MilneHeather Dickinson
BillDavid Webber
Mr AstleyRichard Hope
Mrs BestTheresa Watson
Jimmy BurnsDaniel MaysDaniel Mays
Florence Banner
Jodhi May
Charles FrobisherAlexei SayleAlexei Sayle

Filming locations

The production team visited Whitstable in Kent, where Nancy Astley (Rachael Stirling) lived with her family, before she leaves for London. The Chatham Dockyard was used to double as London for the street scenes.[6]


  1. Brooks, Richard (18 August 2002). "Explicit lesbian drama will top BBC schedule", The Sunday Times (London), p. 7.
  2. Tipping the Velvet: DVD Special Features (2002). Acorn Media.
  3. Stockwell, Anne (13 May 2003). "My Life as a Victorian Dyke, The Advocate Issue 889, p. 58–60.
  4. Conlan, Tara (22 August 2002). "BBC Faces Obscenity Row Over 'Shocking' New Lesbian Drama", The Daily Mail (London), p. 40.
  5. Waters, Sarah (2000), Tipping the Velvet: A Novel, New York City: Riverhead Trade, p. 128, ISBN 1-57322-788-9.
  6. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Tipping the Velvet Film Focus".
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