TV Review: Man in an Orange Shirt
Patrick Gale's BBC project charts the very different challenges to happiness for gay men during World War II and in the present day.
Man in an Orange Shirt aired as part of the BBC’s Gay Britannia season, marking the 50th anniversary of the removal of the Sexual Offences Act.
The drama was shown in two-parts, the first set in the aftermath of World War II, and the second in 2017. The first film tells the story of Michael and Thomas, whose love affair develops in secret. After meeting in the army, Michael and Thomas write to each other, occasionally meet up, and spend one idyllic week together in Michael’s inherited cottage. Their love exists in snatched moments and in letters as Michael marries a woman named Flora and opts for an outwardly conventional life, its outcomes far from fulfilling.
In the second film, we pick up with Flora, Michael's eventual wife, as an older woman, embittered by her past. Under the spotlight in this story is the relationship of Adam, her grandson, who struggles with his own sexuality, and with society's reception of it. Then he meets a man named Steve. Despite a different climate of acceptance in present-day Britain, Adam must decide if he is brave enough to choose love.
The positioning of this pair of films in the Gay Britannia series makes perfect sense given the contrast of the two time periods, but it doesn’t make the present look easier for gay relationships.
This was calculated on Gale’s part. He says that he was ‘only interested in the project if it could challenge gay viewers as much as straight ones,’ whilst at the same time navigating the path that it was written for a mainstream BBC audience.
In this respect, Gale’s screenplay is no different to his novels, in that he places his gay protagonists in the bosom of their heterosexual families, playing on the emotional ties that bind them together. This was at the heart of the struggle for Adam in the second film, and the price for Michael in the first.
However, like any great story, Man in an Orange Shirt is about more than just the story - the relationships of the two gay couples. Gale says, ‘Whose story it is depends, I hope, on the viewer and their sympathies…designed to be slightly ambiguous and slippery that way.’
For me, Flora’s story is arguably as significant, and not only because she connects the films. She represents the slow change that comes with the Act’s repeal in 1967. There is tragedy for her, having a marriage that she didn’t expect, and she is embittered as a result. She must reconcile her past with Adam’s future. If Adam must decide whether to choose love, where his grandfather failed, Flora must choose acceptance, and perhaps ultimately, forgiveness for the past.
I spoke directly to Gale, who was kind enough to expand on Flora’s plight. He points out that Man in an Orange Shirt was also one of the ‘few shows in that season to highlight the terrible cost paid by many straight women for anti-gay legislation and the lies that it engendered.’ This is a reference to Gale's own mother: the inspiration, in part, for the whole narrative. His mother discovered love letters between her husband and another man. Unlike Flora, she never confronted her husband, and so the ‘what if she had,’ was the seed of Gale’s story.
For the writers among us, Gale is at pains to point out that Man in an Orange Shirt wasn’t first written as a novel, and that it was his first television screenplay. He said that if it had been a novel, the core plot would have been the same, ‘but I’d’ve been going inside all the characters heads and memories, so we’d have come away with a far fuller understanding of them all, their motivation and the emotional toll the story took on them.’ Sadly though, Gale has no intention to put it into a novel form.
In Man in an Orange Shirt, I believe that Gale has proved himself as skilled a screenwriter as a novelist, and I eagerly await whatever comes next. Gale has hinted at future television projects, but is giving nothing away. Let's wait and see.
Patrick Gale has lived in Cornwall since 1987, and began a love affair with the county that has fed his work ever since. He chairs the North Cornwall Book Festival, is patron of Penzance LitFest and a director of both Endelienta and the Charles Causley Trust.
by Julia Webb-Harvey