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TV Comes Out

BBC's new miniseries takes a look at the underbelly of proper Victorian life.


"Tipping" is as luxuriantly filmed, as robustly acted and as exquisitely directed as anything you'd expect to find from the BBC on "Masterpiece Theatre." But the subject was clearly too much for PBS. It's almost too sizzling for BBC America, as is evidenced by the many stern warnings about its sexual content that the cable network has scattered throughout.

The focus of the story is Nan Astley, a young woman awakening to her sexuality as she works in her family's oyster house in a seaside town in England. Right — an oyster house, proving that sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar.

Astley's first love is a singer, Kitty, who comes to town with a traveling vaudeville troupe. She does her act in male drag, and Astley immediately falls in love. Kitty gets an offer to perform in London and takes Astley along. Astley even joins the act, but when Kitty opts for the straight life and marriage to her agent, Astley is left to fend for herself.

Taking her inspiration from her drag act, Astley becomes a successful "male" prostitute, but she quickly comes under the spell of an older woman who introduces her to Victorian debauchery and abuse. Over the course of the three-hour production, Astley experiences almost every aspect of lesbian life imaginable before she finds true love — and a happy ending — where she and the audience least expect it.

When the miniseries debuted in England, one of the London papers proclaimed it to be "as uplifting as a Victorian bustle." The description is dead-solid perfect. Put aside its central subject matter, and you still have a historically accurate and fascinating glimpse of the underbelly of prim late-19th century England with a heroine who could have been brought to life in a Jane Austen novel, had she dared.

As Astley, Rachael Stirling — the daughter of actress Dame Diana Rigg — is the consummate ingenue, with shades of her mother's grace in front of a camera and hints of Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle. The remainder of the cast is equally talented and assured.

"Tipping the Velvet" is riveting television, the stuff that discerning viewers will be talking about around the water cooler for days to come. S

"Tipping the Velvet" airs for three consecutive nights on BBC America beginning Friday, May 23, at 10 p.m.

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