It may be 2017 and gay marriage is legal in the UK, but it’s still incredibly rare for a mainstream British TV show to focus on gay characters and stories, especially a Sunday night BBC period mini-series. However, we got one with Man In An Orange Shirt, one of the centrepieces of the Gay Britannia season, marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of gay sex in England and Wales.
It’s also a somewhat unusual two-parter, as the first episode is set almost exclusively in the 1940s and 1950s, while the second episode leaps forward into the modern day.
The opener tells the story of Michael Berryman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who falls for artist Thomas Church (James McArdle) during the Second World War. After peace is declared, the men passionately reunite. However, Michael doesn’t see it as something that could possibly have a future. Instead he marries Flora (Joanna Vanderham) and has a child. However, despite his best efforts he cannot completely escape the fact that he’s gay and is still in love with Thomas.
The second episode moves us to 2017 and focuses on Adam, who’s in his early 30s and living a life of anonymous hookup app sex with men he has no intention of seeing more than once. He’s also still scared of telling the conservative grandmother who raised him about his sexuality. That grandmother is a significantly older Flora (now Vanessa Redgrave), who battled her husband’s sexuality and hasn’t completely softened with experience and old age.
Then Adam meets Steve (David Gyasi). An unexpected connection begins to build between them as they work to restore an old cottage – a place where Michael and Thomas spent time together many years before.
The structure of Man In An Orange Shirt is both a blessing and a slight curse. It’s a curse solely because with each episode only lasting an hour, it’s difficult not to wish we could spend more time with both parts of the story. The show tells complex tales involving a variety of issues, but there’s only so much it can explore in its 60-minute instalments. Particularly with Thomas and Michael, as well as with Michael’s difficult relationship with Flora, it would have been lovely to have at least another hour to allow it to further get its teeth into the characters.
They are all trapped by laws and a society that doesn’t seem to offer an alternative. While the drama finds great emotional resonance in getting the audience to want Michael and Thomas to get together, it’s also aware that at that time it would have been almost impossible for them to be a ‘normal’ couple, no matter what they wanted. It carefully ensures that Flora doesn’t come across as either a shrew or a passive victim, instead realising the complexity of a woman in a time before sexual equality, who finds herself in a situation that she never expected.
Some have suggested that the drama is lessened by the fact that Michael is a coward, afraid of following his heart. I can kind of see why some people would feel this way, especially if they knew little about the reality for gay people in the 1940s and 1950s. Man In An Orange Shirt doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the intricacies of the social and legal situation for gay people at the time, so to modern eyes the fact Michael doesn’t immediately fight to be with Thomas and marries a woman instead, may seem cowardly. However, threaded through the drama is the reality of the social/legal situation at the time, which includes the possibility of everyone’s life being destroyed, the threat of prison and even death. However, it doesn’t hand hold you on this and assumes the audience is at least vaguely aware of the difficulties of the time, including that the choices Michael makes were not uncommon at the time.
The second episodes allows Man In An Orange Shirt to compare and contrast gay life back then with how it is now, where despite the march of gay rights there are still issues, fears and social pressures. Adam’s fear of telling his grandmother he’s gay highlights how the repercussions of the past still resonate today. One of the best scenes in the whole series is where Vanessa Redgrave’s older Flora struggles to adjust to her grandson’s sexuality, which causes her to reconsider her past and whether she ‘won’ in relation to what happened between Michael and Thomas.
While inevitably the second episode is very different to the first part, it’s an interesting look at modern gay life. That includes the realities of hookup culture when it’s used as a way to get a facsimile of intimacy and connection, while allowing people to never have to actually connect to someone on a deeper level. It’s a smart and intelligent take on being gay in the UK nowadays, and many people will be able to see echoes of Adam and indeed Steve in their own lives. Julian Morris in particular is excellent as Adam, bringing a great mix of strength and fear to the character, underlining how the emotions and issues his grandfather faced continue on now, although expressed in different ways.
It also doesn’t hurt that everyone in the show is pretty good-looking, and both episodes have moments that are pretty darn sexy. Just a few years ago it’s likely a mainstream BBC1 evening programme about gay characters would have shied away from the idea that gay men might actually have sex with one another at some point, but that’s certainly not true here. That’s not to say this is a non-stop sex-fest, but it weaves it into the story in a natural way, ensuring it is involving and entertaining, while never feeling sanitised.
Overall Verdict: Although I would have liked to have seen more of both stories, there’s no doubt that the structure of Man In An Orange Shirt provides an interesting, thought-provoking and at times moving way to look at just how different the world is for gay people in Britain now, compared to the middle of the last century.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac