REVIEW: Man in an Orange Shirt

By: Emily Maybanks

Man in an Orange Shirt was first shown on BBC Two last summer. A two part series, it was at the heart of the BBC’s Gay Britannia season, commemorating the 50th anniversary of homosexuality being decriminalised in Britain (in 1967). Man in an Orange Shirt was written by novelist Patrick Gale and was very loosely based on a discovery he made about his own parents’ relationship. Man in an Orange Shirt is a well-crafted and moving dialogue between the past and the present.

The cast of Man in an Orange Shirt include Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Michael Berryman and James McArdle as Thomas March, and Joanna Vanderham as Flora Talbot, in the first episode. In the second episode, the cast includes Vanessa Redgrave as Flora Berryman (Flora Talbot in the first episode), Julian Morris as Adam Berryman and David Gyasi as Steve. The first episode, set during the 1940’s tells the gently wrenching story of a secret romance between soldiers Michael and Thomas, and the increasingly frayed marriage of Michael and his new wife Flora, whom he marries because, that’s just what people did. The War brings Michael and Thomas together, when Michael drags his bloodied comrade away from battle, a bullet hole penetrating his official war artist sketchbook. He lingers at his bedside as Thomas recuperates. As soon as the war ends, Michael seeks out his love in London, and finds him painting above a shop. He later marries Flora because it was deemed as the “right thing to do” although he clearly doesn’t love her. When she discovers her husband’s homosexuality, she is furious – as well as heavily pregnant – at her husband’s betrayal, and scared about the punitive measures that would be doled out to Michael should he ever be discovered. Furthermore, Thomas is imprisoned. In early scenes, we see Michael and Thomas escaping to a countryside cottage where they’re hidden, but able to be who they want to be. Here, we also see Thomas painting Michael standing in a barn doorway, wearing an orange shirt.

It is a sad and human story of people trying to do their best when the times allow them no best option. Thwarted love is the driving force behind the programme, but the first episode of Man in an Orange Shirt does a beautiful job of showing the consequences of repression for all during this time of upheaval.

The second episode advanced into a here and now which is not at all a “never-had-it-so-good sunlit utopia”. Where his grandfather Michael in the previous episode closeted himself in an unhappy marriage, orphaned vet Adam Berryman is the slave of supposedly sexually liberating dating apps. As a result, he was terrified of attachment. His nocturnal antics led to the idea that you really can have too much of a good thing. He lives with his grandmother (Flora Berryman), who gives him the cottage. At his workplace – the vets – he meets designer Steve who restores not only the cottage’s distressed interior, but also Adam’s psyche, which was in much of a similar condition. The story ends nicely for Adam and Steve in this episode. In an old painting of the cottage, they find the painting of Michael wearing his orange shirt from years ago.

Man in an Orange Shirt is a heart-breaking, yet heart-warming two-part television series depicting the hardships of those in the LGBT+ community, in the 1940’s and in the present day. Before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, the fear of those who were gay was that of persecution and being found out and consequently jailed. Today, we face the fear of judgement from others. What is perhaps most intriguing about Man in an Orange Shirt is that we now live in a society where the word ‘pride’ commonly associated with LGBT+ identity, however writer of the series Patrick Gale chose to base the programme on the theme of ‘shame’. In the present-day episode, we see Adam tell his grandmother Flora “I’ve been ashamed my whole life”. A recent, unrelated video portrayed the fear and often the shame that those of us in the LGBT+ community often feel today.

In an interview with the Radio Times, Gale reveals why he chose the theme of ‘shame’: “I knew I wanted to write about homophobia and at least one of its common causes and I feel strongly that homophobia is enabled, time and again, by a sense of shame hardwired in childhood into most LGBT people, a sense that they are somehow deserving of less respect or of worse treatment and a sense that they need to work harder than straight people at being perfect. You need only glance at a gay dating app to see that gay shame is alive and well – even in a sophisticated metropolis there are countless men hiding their faces and asking for “discretion”. As gay men go, I was an early developer, with gay friends in my teens and a lucky one, with a family who didn’t overtly reject me. Yet my sexuality was never acknowledged or discussed and the abiding sense of discomfort, embarrassment even, caused me to develop terrible eczema which lasted until the month I finally left home for university. It was that burden of loving disgust that I wanted to explore in my 21st-century story; it’s the story of gay man who appears to be functioning in the gay world, and yet is barely functioning on an emotional level because there are so many things in his life that are going unacknowledged and he has such a terror of intimacy and commitment.” Furthermore, on discussing this second episode, he also said, “I wasn’t interested in writing anything straightforwardly celebratory. I wanted to challenge gay viewers as much as straight ones and I designed episode two to be profoundly uncomfortable watching for anyone tempted to believe that equality under the law is the end of the story. Yes, there are hundreds of well-adjusted gay people out there, truly loved and supported by their families and with emotional lives that are integrated into their work lives and so on. But there are also still a great many people who don’t feel able to be out at work, or to their parents and who – at great cost to their mental health – tell themselves that this is perfectly okay.”

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