Patrick Gale’s brilliant two-part story loosely based on his own parent’s marriage of compromise is by far the best part of the BBC TV’s excellent Queer Britannia series that screened in the UK earlier this year. The Man in The Orange Shirt are beautiful tales of love across two interconnected films highlighting the very different challenges that faced the couples. With Michael and Thomas it was the 1940’s just after WWII, and with Adam and Steve it is the present day.
Part one tells the heartbreaking secret romance between soldiers Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Thomas (James McArdle) returning to London after the end of WW2. What starts out as this wonderful blissful romance complete with an English country cottage with roses around the door, soon turns sour when Michael lets slip he is about to marry his childhood friend Flora ( Joanna Vanderham ).
He explains that he will wed her simply because that is what society expected in those days. “You didn’t think we could set up home together like man and wife,” splutters Michael, after Thomas takes umbrage at being asked to be his best man.
When the innocent and rather naif Flora discovers the truth of where her husband’s affection really lies, rather than leave him, she stays in the marriage intent instead on making his life hell.
All three seemed inexplicably trapped. An uptight Michael is unable to move beyond the life that is expected of him, whilst bohemian Thomas is unwilling to toe the line and so after he has been imprisoned for being gay, exiles himself to drink himself to death, and Flora is stuck in a marriage without either love or sex.
The second part of the story is set in present-day London and Floras’s gay grandson Adam (Julian Morris) is staying in a basement in her house. Despite the fact that he is addicted to gay hookup apps and what they subsequently lead too, Adam is still not out to his grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave).
Despite this, the pair of them have quite a lot in common, as neither of them are able to come to terms with the truth. Adam who risks losing his charming architect boyfriend Steve (David Gyasi) because of his secret liaisons and Flora still unable to accept the reality of her past,
With the relationship between Flora and her grandson and Adam and Steve at breaking point, the sudden discovery of a painting and words of love never sent, are the only possibilities of finally bring peace of mind to them both.
In these two rather old-fashioned love stories Gale beautifully captures the English upper-middle-class refusal to accept homosexuality on any level even if it meant destroying lives and making people as miserable as sin. Beautiful played out by his rather talented cast particular the veteran actor Vanessa Redgrave.
Part Two is the story of Michael’s grandson Adam (Julian Morris) a handsome closeted vet who is obsessed with gay hook-up sites. So much so that when nice designer Steve (David Gyasi) hits on him the old-fashioned way, Adam simply doesn’t know how to respond.
Adam still shares a house with his grandmother Flora (now played by Vanessa Redgrave) who has taken great care not to discuss her past with him. She is still feeling the pain of her loveless marriage so when Adam finally ‘comes out’ her response is one of anger. Luckily by this time Adam can accept that Steve doesn’t just want to restore the family county cottage that Flora has given to him, but he wants to work on Adam too.
The pieces in part two do neatly fit together in the end, but it is still worth having a full box of Kleenex handy just in case.
Kudos to Gale, and to Michael Samuels the director, and to the entire talented casts that both productions so compelling to watch and fall in love with too.
Hats off to BBC TV for the whole Queer Britannia series that they produced to mark the 50th Anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK and showing we still have a way to go yet.