13 May 2003: The Advocate

My Life As A Victorian Dyke

Thanks to the unfortunate Oscar Wilde, we know plenty about gay male life in late-Victorian London. But the equally frisky lesbian culture of that era did not get its propers until the turn of the 21st century, when out former academic Sarah Waters [see page 59] began turning her knowledge of lesbian lore (and Victorian porn) into a series of compulsively readable novels, the first being 1999's Tipping the Velvet.

Now American audiences get to travel to Waters's world via the three-part BBC miniseries adaptation of Tipping the Velvet. A ratings smash when it premiered last year in the United Kingdom, Tipping screened at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on April 26 and airs on BBC America over three consecutive nights starting May 23.

Waters's terrifically likable young heroine is Nan Astley, a music-hall performer whose gay loves take her through what seems like half the boudoirs of London. Adding to the fun, Nan is played by Rachael Stirling, the daughter of swinging-'60s lesbian icon Diana Rigg.

In an exclusive interview with The Advocate, Stirling, who's heterosexual, says she felt "completely comfortable" with the miniseries's frank gay sexuality. "It's the most incredible coming-of-age story," Stirling explains. "To counteract any hard-core sex within it, there's a huge sense of humor 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."

Tipping gives Stirling a chance to meet the American audience without preconceptions. That's a privilege she'll never have back home, where her mother's fame helped to make the family fodder for the British tabloid press. ("Fuckers!" Stirling calls them, with feeling.)

Stirling's pedigree didn't assure her the star-making role of Nan, however. "I had to work my butt off for it," she cheerfully allows. After all, she was being asked to carry a first-class, big-budget project, penned by Britain's past master of period TV entertainment, Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice and many others).

BBC's gamble paid off. Stirling's mischievousness is perfect for a story that's "not about breast-beating," she says, but "about fun."

Naturally, since this is a lesbian story, there's heartbreak mixed in with the sex. Nan's awakening starts with seductive entertainer Kitty Butler (Keely Hawes), who performs her music-hall act in drag as a jaunty young man. A duet onstage, Nan and Kitty are soon a duet offstage too. (How did Stirling and Hawes, close friends in real life, prepare for their first nude love scene? "A quick swig," Stirling admits, "just to loosen us up.")

Soon Kitty's fear of discovery leads to betrayal. Happily, though, Nan's adventures are just beginning. Several plot twists later, she finds herself the kept sex toy of the fabulously wealthy Diana (Anna Chancellor), who, among other things, likes to display Nan naked at parties for her snockered lesbian friends.

Which is how Stirling found herself on the film set one day, posed in front of a roomful of people, wearing only gold paint and a phenomenal leather dildo.

Surely this scene was more than a little embarrassing to shoot? "Oh, no, it was fine," Stirling merrily answers. "Actually, the instrument, as it were, felt rather empowering."

The choice of words befits Stirling precisely. Her gift for profanity does not a thing to camouflage her upper-class upbringing. "Education was of prim'r'y importance to my parents," she says. As the daughter of Rigg and Scottish businessman Archie Stirling, Rachael spent holidays at home in Scotland and the rest of the year in the exacting atmosphere of boarding school and then university. But while she was obtaining her master's degree in art history from the University of Edinburgh, Stirling was already preparing to be an actor. She won a placement in the national U.K. youth theater, caught the eye of an agent, and did her first film, Still Crazy, "while flying back and forth to lectures."

Although most Britons know she's straight-the tabloid press again-Stirling concedes that Tipping brought her a few propositions anyway, from women who "hoped otherwise." Even more offers came from men. "One man," she says, overtaken by a sudden hoot of laughter, "traced his cock on the back of his fan letter and drew an arrow from it, saying ACTUAL LIFE SIZE!"

At the other end of the spectrum was the reaction Stirling had to be most apprehensive about-showing the film to her mother. How did Dame Diana react to seeing her child in this lesbian epic? Stirling's voice immediately softens with affection. "She cried like a baby from beginning to end-with joy, of course."

Ask if she cried as well, and Stirling snaps back to speed: "No, fuck no, course not, cause I was going, Jesus, look at the size of my whatever."

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