Keeley Hawes talks to Nicola Hicks about her role in controversial drama Tipping the Velvet.
Keeley Hawes may have made her name in the Dennis Potter drama, Karaoke, but, she tells Nicola Hicks, the one thing that absolutely terrified her about appearing in BBC Two ’s Tipping The Velvet was the singing!
“To be honest, it was the worst thing and the best thing,” laughs the 26-year-old actor, who plays Kitty, the young male impersonator with whom Nan falls passionately in love. “It’s a nice feeling to have done it now but I did find it terrifying at first. I studied singing and dancing at stage school but I spent a lot of time sitting underneath the table, having a fag, so I missed out on most of it!”
Hours of work went into the drama’s music hall sequences and Hawes admits that she and co-star Rachael Stirling (Nan) almost exhausted themselves belting out Kitty’s repertoire of bawdy love songs. “Some were real songs and others were written specially by Andrew Davies. But we spent hours and hours singing them and there’s not much chance I’ll be forgetting them or a long time yet,” Hawes smiles, rolling her eyes.
“Seriously, they’re very catchy and quite repetitive but the joy of it is that you don’t have to listen to them over and over in order to like them.You like them on the first hearing, and songs that were popular in variety shows at that time were regurgitated again and again; singing along was half the joy for the audience.”
The energy of the music hall and the richness of the Victorian underworld that Tipping The Velvet so vividly brings to life were, says Hawes, what initially drew her to the serial. “The whole thing is intriguing; as soon as I started reading the scripts, I couldn’t put them down. I really wanted to do it from the start and even more so when I knew it would be with Rachael,” smiles the actor, who starred alongside Stirling last year in ITV’s modern-day Othello. “Yes, it’s a costume drama but it’s so different – it’s not like anything anyone’s ever done before. I’m not sure how I’d describe it but it certainly isn’t about women looking or husbands!”
Hawes is well placed to comment, having squeezed herself into corsets for a veritable library of literary adaptations, including the BBC’s The Moonstone, Our Mutual Friend and Wives And Daughters, also written by Davies. “When I first read Tipping The Velvet, Kitty reminded me a little of Cynthia in Wives And Daughters – she’s the same sort of selfish, vivacious character,” she says.
“Essentially, she’s a nice person but she’s very ambitious. On the sur ace, she seems very strong – and she has to be because of what she does – but, underneath, she’s not really that brave at all.”
For Hawes, Tipping The Velvet is “just a story about love” and the actor, who appeared in controversial sex scenes in Karaoke, her first acting job, is confident that audiences will feel the same way. “The fact that it’s about two women is not something that keeps recurring. I know that people will be interested in the lesbian aspect but, at the end of the day, it’s just a love story. “How did we approach the love scenes? I knew that question was coming. Well, we did get fairly drunk, if I’m honest!” she roars with laughter. “And then it was kind of fun, we laughed a lot and I know Rachael because I’ve worked with her before, which made it much, much easier. In any case, kissing a woman is not really that different rom kissing a man – there’s just less chance of stubble rash!”
Hawes, the daughter of a London taxi driver, decided that she wanted to be an actor the moment the Sylvia Young Theatre School opened its doors across the street from her family’s home. Enrolled there by her mum, Brenda, she studied drama and dance – and bunked off her singing lessons – between the ages o nine and 16. Her best friend at the time was Spice Girl Emma Bunton, who is still a close pal, and her yearbook also featured Denise Van Outen, Dani Behr and two members of the now-de funct girl group, All Saints. It was while still at stage school that Hawes was “spotted” out shopping on London’s Oxford Street by a scout or a top modelling agency. With her slender, graceful build and a face that has been likened to that o Audrey Hepburn, she made the perfect catwalk model – or would have, had she not been so fond of chips! “I modelled for about year but I was the worst model in the world, really – horrendous in many, many ways. I did a lot of sitting about in pubs, with my friends, trying to dodge ‘phone calls. It was never something that I was passionate about and it’s not a nice industry at all,” she says, firmly. After quitting modelling, Hawes worked as a fashion assistant or Cosmo but, within months, had left the clothes cupboard behind and won a part in Karaoke, which, she now acknowledges, changed her life. Her star continued to rise as she wowed critics as the young Diana Dors in the TV film Blonde BombshellBlonde Bombshell, and delighted audiences in Wives And Daughters.Wives And Daughters.
“I’ve been so lucky,” she nods.”You just don’t usually get roles like that – unless you write them for yourself !”
More recently, Hawes, who has a two-year-old son, Myles, has been getting her teeth into another gritty role, as M15 agent Zoë in BBC One’s hard-hitting spy drama, spooks. “I’ve really enjoyed that part and we’re about to start work on another series,” she says. “I wanted to do something modern and to do a series, something with a bit of continuity to it, and spooks was perfect. It seems far- fetched but most of the things that happened in the first series were actually based on real events. “What’s amazing is that that hasn’t put people off ! I would make a terrible spy and now I wouldn’t want to be one either but, apparently, most of the country does! Within an hour of the first show going out, M15 had something like 85,000 hits on their site – it’s gone up ten fold!” The actor grins and suddenly there’s a wicked gleam in her eye. “You know, maybe after Tipping The Velvet everyone will want to be a lesbian!” she jokes. “Not sure if there’s a website though!”