2002 has turned into quite a banner year for Sarah Waters. At 36, the Welsh-born, London-based writer found herself to be the youngest author on the 2002 shortlist for literature’s prestigious Booker Prize for her latest work, the twisty Victorian mystery Fingersmith. Though this recognition garnered much attention for the writer, it turned out that it was Waters’ first novel, Tipping the Velvet, that was suddenly grabbing all the headlines in the British media.
Adapted into a BBC2 television mini-series by acclaimed screenwriter Andrew Davies (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary), Tipping the Velvet caused all sorts of scandal before an episode was even broadcast. Based on a lesbian novel about underground Victorian England, replete with scenes of music halls, male impersonators, prostitutes, and rich women who kept love slaves, the series promised a sexy romp unlike anything ever seen before on British television.
I got to sit down for a chat with Ms. Waters, as she blew through Seattle for the North American premiere of Tipping the Velvet at the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. She was on an extensive book tour for Fingersmith, but managed to squeeze in a visit to the film festival, before flying back to the UK the next day in time to attend the Booker Prize awards ceremony. A bit overwhelmed by all the attention she has been receiving, she offered her thoughts about her books, the media frenzy, and BBC2’s adaptation of her first novel.
MOVIEPIE: What did you focus on in your studies? Because your books take place in the Victorian era…
SARAH WATERS: My [literature] PhD started off in the late 19th century, talking about men like Oscar Wilde and people, looking back to ancient Greece. So in that sense, I knew a bit about gay men’s stuff at the very end of the 19th century… and I kind of liked that world, rather sort of seedy, decadent, you know.
Did you find any lesbian literature from that time?
It’s tricky. There isn’t really much in the way of novels and stuff like that. There’s some poetry… It’s more though that you have to look for evidence of lesbian life. You have to look at other sorts of things, like medical writing or diaries, letters, and poetry to a certain extent…
In Tipping the Velvet, you have a really vivid portrayal of an underground London. Did you find proof of that…?
I’d like to say I did!
… Or did you make that up? I was really curious! Because what I especially enjoy about your books is your use of slang; it sounds like you really used the language of the time. How much of that is authentic?
Part of the thing of it is making it seem like it’s authentic. I have researched the slang, especially for Fingersmith, more than any of them, really. But at the same time I kind of use the words that capture my imagination. I leave research behind for a while and just sort of do that. When it comes to sort of specific lesbian and gay stuff, like Tipping the Velvet, I did have to take a few liberties with history really. I had the whole thing about the word “tom”… people did use that word, going back to the 18th century, to talk about lesbians, but I don’t think they used it to quite the extent—not like as a street-word—in the way that I suggested it was used. Part of the project of that book was not to be authentic, but just to imagine a history—to imagine the sort of history that we can’t really recover.
How about all the scenes with the music halls? You have a lot of song lyrics in the book, and I read that [screenwriter] Andrew Davies, for the adaptation, even made up some more.
He did! Actually a lot of the time I referred to songs, I either described certain songs, or gave them titles. He was confident that they were real songs, and was very disappointed when he found out they weren’t, because often I made them up! So then he wrote the songs. He’s written some great songs.
Are you happy with the film product?
Yes, on the whole. I mean there’s things about it… it’s mainstream TV, it’s really not a film, and I think that’s an important distinction. It’s mainstream TV—it’s BBC! But with that in mind, I think that they did a pretty good job. I think that if it had been made by a lesbian production company, it would feel rather different—the girls in it. The main thing for me is that the woman who plays Nancy, Rachael Stirling—well, she’s great—but she never looks very boyish. She too gorgeous, she’s too girlish. She never looks like she could genuinely pass as a boy on the street. But then the whole thing has a sort of theatricality to it, in other ways, that I really like. On the whole, I really like it.
How much input did you have into the adaptation?
Hardly any. I didn’t really want any. I was much happier just to hand it over to them, and let them get on with it. I also knew from the start that they were going to do a very faithful adaptation. Andrew was good about showing me a couple of drafts of the screenplay, and asking for a certain amount of feedback. I could see from that that it was very faithful. He’s made some changes. A couple of them, I think, do have indications around the lesbian content… just slight changes. But the main changes he’s made are just for the purposes of cutting, and dramatic tension, and tightening it up.
The book is very erotic, and it sounds like there was a lot of media frenzy before it was shown on TV. I found a funny quote from Andrew Davies, he said it was “abolutely filthy.” I imagine he was saying it in a saucy way, like, “It’s filthy. You’ll love it!”
Yeah, he was. They just took that phrase and ran off with it.
I saw that quote A LOT, and apparently a lot of people were expecting it to be basically soft-core porn on BBC, and people flipped out. Then after the first episode showed, people were A) complaining that it was it was too saucy, or B) that there wasn’t enough sex.
The level of attention it got in the press was just amazing. It was in every paper, all the time. There was one daytime TV program called Richard and Judy, where they had this “typical” family—a mother and father and teenage kids—and had them watching it with headphones, with a button they could press when they got embarrassed. So there’s like this “embarrassment meter.” And… they seemed to find it quite embarrassing.
It’s not that the sex that is in the book is not in the series; it’s not that they cut anything out. But they’ve kind of camped it up in a way—like the scenes where Nancy’s a rent-boy, they’ve really played that for laughs, which I kind of have mixed feelings about—so that’s not erotic at all. And the dildo! They’ve kept the dildo, which a first for British TV!
So you can actually see…?
Really! That’s very impressive!
Yeah, but the dildo… [suddenly stops, laughing, and glances around the hotel lobby where we’re chatting, realizing how loud she’s talking] I’m just so used to saying it…! The dildo is actually cut so fast that it’s more implied. That it’s not that explicit somehow at all. And also, I think that people have been a bit taken by surprise that people watch it, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, here’s a dildo… here’s lesbian sex…” People have been very unfazed by it. This a sign of the times, but in a good way.
Will tonight be the first time you’ll be seeing it with a full audience in a theater?
Well, actually the production company ran a screening of it in a West End cinema for the cast and the crew, so I’ve seen it on a big screen… but that was with the cast and crew. It will be lovely to see it with a gay audience!
[Read Moviepie’s review of BBC2’s Tipping the Velvet.]