Tag Archives: Man in an Orange Shirt

A human story

In his first screen drama, novelist Patrick Gale tells two gay love stories set 60 years apart. DQ speaks to the writer and actors Vanessa Redgrave and Joanna Vanderham about starring in Man in an Orange Shirt .

Patrick Gale

From the sidelines, it looks like a cosy scene. Stepping down from Battersea Park’s picturesque bandstand, arm in arm, in immaculate 1940s dresses, Joanna Vanderham and Laura Carmichael are deep in conversation.

While extras in period costume walk behind them (and assistant directors, also in period costume, shoo away curious dog walkers) they are seemingly oblivious as their characters swap the closest of intimacies. The pair play sisters Flora and Daphne and the scene is at the heart of an ambitious new BBC2 drama, Man in an Orange Shirt, chronicling the modern history of gay lives in one family, set 60 years apart.

Vanderham, complete with a huge prosthetic pregnant bump, plays Flora, who just hours earlier discovered something that would change her life, the life of her unborn child, and his child too, forever.

Cleaning a desk belonging to her husband Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), she finds letters from his lover Thomas (James McArdle), an artist who had been her husband’s best man at their wedding. She’d burned them and hastily arranged this meeting with her sister. But as she muses the reality of her husband being a gay man, she finds that she can’t even tell her big sister this dark, dark secret. The possible consequences – divorce and even jail – are too tough to contemplate.

“The way this scene is described in the script is ‘the women meet for lunch and everything is perfect’ with lots of exclamation marks,” says Vanderham. “But of course, the opposite is true. There are all of these things going on underneath the surface but Flora swallows it down. It’s a very British thing to do. She never says anything, she never says how she feels.

Joanna Vanderham (left) and Laura Carmichael as sisters Flora and Daphne respectively

“From this moment she moves forward in a way that means outwardly it looks like things are fine. But what we see is the cost and how much keeping everything bottled up costs her. At the start of the film she’s full of life and vitality; excited about her marriage and becoming pregnant. By the end she’s a tight-lipped, close-mouthed, unhappy and lonely woman.”

The two-part story of The Man in an Orange Shirt has been written by novelist Patrick Gale, whose original commission was the rather open-ended idea of doing something about the experience of gay men in the 20th century. He decided to turn the tale inward; in some ways it is his own story.

“It was the most terrifying commission I’ve ever had,” admits Gale, who is making his screen debut with the project. “The gem of this whole story comes from when I tried to come out to my mother when I was 22. I had written my first book about being gay and it was my way of coming out to her. But instead of talking about it, she revealed to me that my father had had an affair with another man when she was pregnant with me. She had found some letters and had burned them. The amazing scene that is in the first film actually happened to my mother but in real life she never confronted my father. She never told him.

“She just waited until I grew up and told me. Thanks mum! To my dying shame I never had a conversation with my father about it. He knew I was gay and was very sweet about my lovers but – being so British – we never really had a conversation about it. I wonder, I still wonder, what he thought of it all.”

James McArdle as Thomas (left) and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Michael

The second of the films brings the action into the present day. Flora, now played by Vanessa Redgrave (who also played an older version of Vanderham in Richard III at London’s Almeida Theatre recently), is bringing up her grandson Adam (Julian Morris) after both his parents were killed in a car crash. He is gay but his grandmother’s attitude towards homosexuality means he can’t confide in her, and he’s filled with self-hatred over his own sexuality, spending his time meeting up with strangers for meaningless sex without even bothering to find out their names.

When he meets a man he genuinely likes, an architect called Steve (David Gyasi), he is frightened by his feelings and jeopardises the relationship.

“For me, the first storyline was about the enemy without and the second one is about the enemy within,” says Gale. “The core of gay shame is one we learn very young. My parents were very Christian and supportive but they passed on gay shame to me. Mine came out in appalling eczema I experienced in my teens; my shame came out in my skin.

“We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality [in the UK] but I think the problem of gay shame is one that won’t go away, however much legislation you pass. We will always be a minority, we will never apply to that Disney model of gender roles.”

The story depicts two timelines 60 years apart

Appearing in the drama, which is produced by Kudos and distributed by FremantleMedia International, also made Redgrave think about her own experiences. One of Britain’s most famously liberal stars, whose husband and father were both bisexual, she took some convincing to play the part of the embittered Flora. Gale wrote her a three-page letter explaining why Flora acts as she does in an attempt to win over the veteran actor – and it clearly worked.

“I had to start with the thought that she wasn’t always brusque and difficult,” says Vanessa. “She was somebody very nice who has had to fabricate a whole denial system in her life. The impact of that has built and built throughout her life.

“It has made me think a lot about my father’s generation. He was bisexual and a lot of his friends were totally gay; there were quite a few lesbians too. To protect themselves, they protected each other. How could we have called ourselves a democracy up until 1967 when this was illegal? The cruelty! What a cruel, harsh attitude of you can do this, but you can’t do that. Total stupid rubbish!”

The Man in an Orange Shirt, which debuts on BBC2 on July 31, is one of the cornerstone dramas commissioned by the BBC to celebrate the decriminalisation of homosexuality and it shows the legacy of draconian laws that meant it was impossible to live as an openly gay person. “It’s a drama about some people who are gay and some who are not,” adds Vanderham. “Flora is the female protagonist and she suffered just as much as the men in her life. More than a gay story, it is a human story which needs to be told.”

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Brits show progress in LGBT drama

Patrick Gale (photo by Daniel Hall)
Patrick Gale (photo by Daniel Hall)

British novelist Patrick Gale is writing an original drama for BBC1. Produced by Endemol Shine-owned Kudos, Man in an Orange Shirt is a two-parter that will explore how a painting links two gay love stories told 60 years apart.

Commenting on the project, Gale said: “Man in an Orange Shirt is the most exciting screen project I’ve worked on to date: an original drama exploring strands of gay male experience since the 1940s. It has been such a privilege to be given such an open brief and then allowed to run with it.”

Gale says he doesn’t want to give too much away, “but after much experimenting, we’ve ended up with two hour-long films — one set in the 1940s and 50s and one set in the violently contrasted present; one depicting a love story made impossible by pressures from society, one a love story nearly derailed by the long-term fallout from the 1940s story.

“People who know my novels will be unsurprised to hear that the stories give equal focus to wives and mothers and are about tensions between family bonds, the need to be good and the urge to seize happiness. I hope they’ll appeal equally to straight and gay viewers, but also that they’ll leave either side feeling challenged about things they take for granted.”

Russell T Davies' Cucumber
Russell T Davies’ Cucumber

Lucy Richer, BBC acting controller of drama commissioning and executive producer, added: “Patrick is an outstanding and bestselling novelist whose stories connect with readers worldwide. Distinctive, original voices are at the heart of BBC Drama and we are thrilled to be making his first original television drama for BBC1. Man in an Orange Shirt has all the hallmarks of a Patrick Gale novel: captivating stories with unforgettable characters who will strike a chord with us all.”

It isn’t uncommon for UK drama to include gay strands in stories. But a primarily gay-themed drama on mainstream British TV is still something of a novelty. The last high-profile example (2015) was Russell T Davies’ trilogy of dramas for Channel 4, entitled Cucumber, Tofu and Banana, each of which explored a different dimension of male gay culture in 21st century Britain.

Looking back over the last 25 years, the first landmark title in the LGBT canon was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a 1990 BBC series based on the novel by Jeanette Winterson – with Winterson adapting for TV.

Nine years later, Russell T Davies kicked the door down with his provocative debut series for Channel 4, Queer As Folk. Davies delivered another gay protagonist two years later in Bob & Rose, but it’s QAF that stands out as a landmark in the portrayal of contemporary gay Britain (or one subset of it).

Queer as Folk
Queer as Folk

While Davies is very much LGBT TV’s rock star, the last decade saw arrival of Sarah Waters on the scene, with adaptations of her lesbian protagonist novels Tipping the Velvet (2002), Fingersmith (2005) and The Night Watch (2011) – all for the BBC. If there’s a key difference, of course, it is that Davies has been writing original shows while Waters’ works were already acclaimed novels before being adapted for TV by Andrew Davies (Tipping the Velvet), Peter Ransley (Fingersmith) and Paula Milne (The Night Watch). Davies also does contemporary, while Waters favours historical.

In 2006 there was a BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s acclaimed gay-themed 1980s novel The Line of Beauty (starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens). Again adapted by Andrew Davies, the show received mixed reviews. The Independent called it “intelligent properly grown-up drama” but The Guardian said it was a “creative flop” that “exposed how poorly the BBC serves gay viewers.”

On balance, it seems as though broadcasters pay slightly more attention to the lesbian experience than the male gay experience – at least in terms of TV dramas with LGBT protagonists.

In addition to the above-mentioned titles, for example, there has been Channel 4’s Sugar Rush, based on Julie Burchill’s novel of the same name. The story of a 15-year-old lesbian called Kim who moves from London to Brighton, Sugar Rush ran for 20 episodes in 2006 and was adapted for the screen by Katie Baxendale.

Tipping the Velvet
Tipping the Velvet

More recently, there has been Lip Service, about a group of lesbians living in Glasgow. There were two seasons from 2010-2012, created by Harriet Braun and produced (again) by Kudos for BBC3.

Other shows that fit within the broader LGBT theme include Vicious, the 14-episode sitcom starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a gay couple who have been together for 50 years. Backed once again by Kudos (and Brown Eyed Boy), this series (2013-2016) was unusual in that it aired on commercial network ITV, which shows that pulling power of McKellen in particular.

Vicious was created by Mark Ravenhill and Gary Janetti, though the latter wrote all of the episodes and specials. It is worth noting that Janetti is actually a US writer drafted in to give the comedy a bit of US sitcom pizzazz (he was executive producer on Will & Grace).

Every bit as ground-breaking as the new Patrick Gale drama is Boy Meets Girl, a BBC2 sitcom about the developing relationship between a 26-year-old man and a 40-year-old transgender woman (played by transgender actor Rebecca Root). Although there have been mixed reviews of the quality of the comedy (also true of ITV’s Vicious), there’s no question that Boy Meets Girl – which is currently in its second season – is an example of the BBC trying its hardest to do diversity properly.

The genesis of Boy Meets Girl was a Trans Camp event organised by All About Trans, the purpose of which was to explore media portrayal of the trans community. From this, the BBC ran a talent search called the Trans Comedy Award, which offered writers up to £5,000 for scripts with positive portrayals of transgender characters.

Boy Meets Girl
Boy Meets Girl

One of the winners was Elliott Kerrigan for Boy Meets Girl. The show was commissioned on the basis of a pilot and Kerrigan was paired with Simon Carlyle and Andrew Mettam to write a series. The Tiger Aspect Production was then renewed.

If there’s a difference between the US and UK approach to LGBT inclusiveness at present, it is that the US is further down the road in portraying LGBT characters and stories as a part of the day-to-day tapestry of life, as regular people who aren’t overly focused on the politics of their sexual orientation.

US organisation GLAAD, which monitors LGBT portrayal in US TV and film, makes this point neatly when it counsels producers against using characters that “are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”

It will be interesting to see how Gale manages to address this in the context of a mainstream channel audience with Man in an Orange Shirt.

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