Book Reviews · DVD Reviews · Film

DVD Review: Tipping the Velvet (2002)

tipping the velvetWe’ve talked about Sarah Waters’ historical novel Tipping the Velvet before, but since it was National Coming Out Day on 11th October, we thought we’d review the televised adaptation by the BBC, which is how many people will have first experienced this story. Find both in the BOOK ZONE at 823.91!

Tipping the Velvet is a coming-of-age story set in the Victorian era about Nan (Rachael Stirling), a young woman who travels to London and falls in love with a male impersonator called Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes). Kitty is already a star of the stage, and Nan manages to get a job as Kitty’s dresser and eventually her stage partner. However, when their tempestuous relationship causes Nan to leave, she has to adapt to survive in the seedy underbelly of nineteenth-century London, falling in and out of love until she finally finds what she was looking for the whole time.

Vesta Tilley made the song 'Burlington Bertie' famous
Vesta Tilley made the song ‘Burlington Bertie’ famous

The history of male impersonators is fascinating – Tipping the Velvet demonstrates that, dressed as a man, women on the stage could get away with a lot more than they could while presenting as women. It is worth noting that while presenting as male did not necessarily mean that a performer was homosexual (since gender presentation and sexuality are different), the music hall tradition of dressing as male did allow for a lot more freedom for people of other genders, sexualities and preferences to express themselves, even if it came from an essentially patriarchal and heteronormative system.

At the time that Tipping the Velvet was made, BBC programmes featuring LGBTQ+ relationships (such as the TV adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) were rare and did not show explicit sex scenes, but the BBC made the decision to air Tipping the Velvet uncut, to stay true to Waters’ book. The morality of the Motion Picture Production Code (known as the Hays Code) and the BBFC had a lot of influence over what could be shown on television and released in cinemas and we still feel its effects today – for instance, homosexual relationships could only be portrayed in a negative light to discourage viewers from engaging in them. While we are thankfully moving towards more diverse portrayals, a lot of criticism of media is held back by outdated views. Tipping the Velvet takes a much more positive and varied view of the relationships involved, and while it has some upsetting moments, it is a light-hearted romp through Victorian decadence, inspired by Victorian erotica.

Hetty King's career as a male impersonator spanned 70 years
Hetty King’s career as a male impersonator spanned 70 years

At the end of Tipping the Velvet, Nan gets involved in the Socialist and Suffragist movements and becomes politically active, campaigning for change and finding her calling. Waters chose to set her novel in the 1890s to show how women’s role in society was changing and evolving, and a good companion might be the recent film Suffragette, currently on release in cinemas, which is set twenty years after Tipping the Velvet as the women’s suffrage movement became more and more popular.

Tipping the Velvet has been adapted for the stage and is being performed in London until the 24th October and Edinburgh until mid-November.

If you liked this…

Oscar Wilde’s much-publicised trial for his homosexual relationships was only one of many prosecutions when homosexuality was a crime in England, but it was certainly the most widely publicised. Watch Stephen Fry as the great playwright in Wilde (DVD LOBBY 791.43) and read The Picture of Dorian Gray (BOOK ZONE 823.8) – Wilde’s editors removed any explicit references to homosexuality before publication. Wilde wrote the extended letter De Profundis while in prison, which gives an account of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and attempts to reconcile his sexuality with his conversion to Christianity. Read it online at Project Gutenberg.

20151015_142201British TV has provided some fantastic series about LGBTQ+ characters: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was another ground-breaking depiction of sexuality in a repressed society. Read our review of the book here (BOOK ZONE 823.91). Before he became head writer on Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies created the cult British series Queer As Folk (BOOK ZONE 822.91), about a group of gay men and their lives and loves. It was broadcast in 1999 at the same time as LGBT equality was being debated in Parliament. Look out for Aiden Gillen, who plays Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, and Charlie Hunnam, who has since been seen in Sons of Anarchy, Pacific Rim and the upcoming Crimson Peak.

Tipping the Velvet might have been the novel that made people sit up and take notice of Sarah Waters, but her other novels, Fingersmith and The Night Watch, have garnered similar critical acclaim and contain LGBTQ+ characters (both available in the BOOK ZONE at 823.91).

And please come and check out our fantastic Coming Out Week display!


Amphis (2006) Vesta Tilley (photograph) Available at: (downloaded: 15/10/2015)

G.dallorto (2006) King, Hetty – 1910 (male impersonator) Available at:,_Hetty_-_1910_(male_impersonator).jpg (downloaded: 15/10/2015)


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