Chancellor plays Diana
"I think this might be the peak of my lesbian career,"
chuckles Anna Chancellor, who plays Tipping The Velvet's aristocratic
"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
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,"
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.
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.
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
Chancellor's relationship with Scott did not last but her career
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
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