Man in an Orange Shirt explores life for gay men – and their wives – in 1940s

by Fiona Rae / 11 August, 2017
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Man in an Orange Shirt, Sunday.

A new drama is a reminder of how hard life was for gay men and the women they married in 1940s Britain. 

When the BBC commits to an anniversary, it really commits: the current Gay Britannia season in the UK runs across television, radio and online and ranges from prestige drama to radio interviews and concerts.

The occasion is the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, legislation that partially decriminalised gay sex. It applied only in England and Wales to men over 21 and did not cover the merchant navy or the armed forces, but still, it was a start. It would be nearly 20 years before New Zealand changed its legislation.

Our slice of this LGBT extravaganza is Man in an Orange Shirt (TVNZ 1, Sunday, August 13, 8.30pm), a multigenerational drama about the ramifications of a forbidden love affair.

Novelist Patrick Gale extrapolated from his own family experience for the screenplay – he has revealed that when his mother was pregnant with him, she found love letters written to her husband by another man.

Much to Gale’s regret, she burnt the letters and never said a word until he was 22. In addition, she never discussed it with her husband; all Gale knew was that his parents were “strangely detached from one another”, he told a BBC interviewer. “It’s so English.”

Gale has expanded the story to imagine “what would have happened if she had confronted him. What kind of compromise they would have arrived at and what long-term effects that would have had.”

The story is taken back a generation to a wartime meeting of Army captain Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and artist Thomas (James McArdle) and a passionate interlude in a country cottage after Michael is demobbed. However, he is set to marry his childhood sweetheart, Flora (Joanna Vanderham), and, as it is the 1940s, this is what happens.

Gale is at pains to make this Flora’s story, too. When she discovers an unsent love letter, it is “a deep, deep betrayal”, says Gale. “She’s of the generation who married for life. They do love each other, and they do their best.”

These events continue to have effects into the 21st century, when Flora, now played by Vanessa Redgrave, is shocked to learn that her grandson Adam (Julian Morris) is gay. He is navigating a freer world of hook-up apps and embarking on his own love affair with Steve (David Gyasi).

“I wanted to ask uncomfortable questions,” says Gale. “The most obvious of which is, have things got better for gay people now?”

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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