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29 October 2014
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Anna Chancellor plays Diana

"I think this might be the peak of my lesbian career," chuckles Anna Chancellor, who plays Tipping The Velvet's aristocratic Diana Lethaby.

"I have played gay women before - in Boston Marriage, opposite Zoë Wanamaker, and in a play about Stanley Spencer - but I can't say I've ever done anything quite like this."

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Sarah Waters's extraordinary novel. For despite her upper-class credentials, Diana is not your average costume drama dowager.

"She's power-crazed. She is that rare thing which is a woman of independent means in the 19th century. And she is a very rich woman, so she's not reliant on anyone else.

"She can live the life she chooses and she chooses for herself the subversive, darker side of life - she's basically a Victorian dominatrix lesbian," explains Chancellor, matter-of-factly.

Diana certainly lives by her own rules. Utterly amoral, capricious and predatory, she picks Nan up from the streets, where she is working as a rent boy.

But Diana's interest in Nan is not romantic, it is sexual and acquisitive.

Although Diana introduces her to a world of luxury and debauchery, Nan virtually becomes her sex slave in return.

"It's an incredible story and very beautifully styled," says the 37-year-old actor, who shot to fame as Duckface, the woman who floored Hugh Grant in Four Weddings And A Funeral.

"Though I couldn't quite believe we were going to make it for the BBC! When I put the script down, I was laughing and saying, "Well I never!" But Sarah and Andrew [Davies] had written such a great part, it was really good fun to try to get her right."

Though Chancellor's CV is packed full of femme fatales and voracious man-eaters, she admits that, in Tipping The Velvet, the sexiest scenes were the most difficult to film.

"I rather enjoyed Andrew Davies's completely unabashed enjoyment of writing the sex. His complete immersion in the story he's writing is wonderful.

But the scenes between Diana and Nan are very fantastical - I think Sarah Waters wrote them out of fantasy and they read brilliantly - but, sometimes, turning them into reality was a very hard transition," she explains.

For Chancellor, the relationship between Diana and the drama's central character, Nan (played by Rachael Stirling), is a fascinating one.

In contrast to Nan's romantic attachments to Kitty and Florence, her encounter with Diana depends upon a rather darker dynamic, which rapidly descends into humiliation and loss.

"In a sado-masochistic relationship, which is basically what it is, the balance of power is a complex one and the victim and the victimiser are quite interchangeable. It's not as one-sided as it first appears," says Chancellor.

"I often play the bitch and, to me, what's interesting about those characters is that there's always a counterweight.

"Behind the drive of somebody who's a real bitch, there's always a vulnerability and a lack of confidence - you don't need to assert yourself in that way unless you're a very fragile person. Diana, underneath it all, is someone who is shattered inside."

Chancellor's most recent excuse to dig in the claws turned up in this summer's Crush, a movie about female bonding, in which she starred alongside her Four Weddings co-star and friend, Andie MacDowell.

Though the film was released to a luke-warm reception over here, Chancellor herself turned in a winning performance as thrice-married, tell-it-like-it-is doctor, Molly.

Chancellor grew up in the West Country with her mother and stepfather, a wealthy landowner, surrounded by siblings and beautiful countryside.

At the age of 10, she was sent to board at a convent school, where she proved, "spectacularly crap at passing any exams" but loved being on the stage.

She went on to train at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts but quit her studies at the age of 21 when she became pregnant with her daughter, Poppy, now 15.

As she and Poppy's father, cult Scots poet Jock Scott, struggled to bring up their child in a small basement flat, Chancellor supported the family by waitressing, appearing in ads and doing rep in far-flung theatres.

Chancellor's relationship with Scott did not last but her career took off.

In 1994, she played Sloaney Henrietta in the box-office smash Four Weddings and a Funeral and, though it landed her with an unfortunate nickname, she hasn't looked back since.

With two more projects in the pipeline this year - Bertolucci's Les Reveurs (The Dreamers) and a film with Colin Firth, tentatively entitled American Girl - Chancellor shows no signs of slowing down.

"I'm 37, which is obviously quite old in some ways but, relatively speaking, if you were to say you're an artist, 37's still quite young, isn't it?" she laughs.

"I sort of feel at my peak at the moment … up and running. I wouldn't now limit myself to what I thought was the ideal acting role. I live life like I only know so much - there's a whole undiscovered world out there."

That's a philosophy that can only have been strengthened by Tipping The Velvet.




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