Trust the BBC to make something urgent, important and outstanding sound dry and lecture-y. Man In An Orange Shirt is the story of two young, vibrant men battling with themselves and drowning under the weight of societal exception. Patrick Gale makes the Second World War feel like a fresh, unexplored place to set a story. A miraculous achievement (just ask Christopher Nolan).
The first episode focusses mostly on the 1940s where Michael Berryman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a captain in the front lines during the Second World War, falls in love with a bohemian artist named Thomas March (James McArdle) whilst fighting in Italy.
Homosexuality during WWII makes for rich subject material. There weren’t many options for gay men in the 40s, but basically the choices were these: be a practicing homosexual and risk imprisonment and social ostracisation; or repress your instincts, keep love an arm length away from you, and try to make a life pretending to be someone you aren’t.
Returned from the front, having been dusted in shrapnel and resembling human pincushions, Michael and Thomas have one blissful weekend away ‘living like man and wife’ before Michael decides to take the second option and get married to a young woman he’s known since childhood, Flora (Joanna Vanderham). Thomas picks option ‘A’ and winds up in prison for public exposure (having had intercourse in a toilet cubicle).
At first, it seems Michael has made the wiser choice, until his wife finds the love letters between the two men and chillingly asks ‘what are you? Are you safe around children?’ before the stress of the whole thing causes her to go into labour with a child conceived with some truly terrible sex. Your insides shrivel up just watching it. Thomas, now free from prison, is able to live something of an honest life with friends and family who know and accept him.
In the first episode, the modern day storyline barely gets going. Vanessa Redgrave plays the wife Michael lied to for years. Her gay grandson, Adam, has yet to gather enough courage to come out to his grandmother, and, with his fear of lasting intimacy, is committed to dating app hookups.
Episode one of Man in an Orange Shirt delightfully and sensitively brings us a story of conflict and of love set in a time of area raids. We shouldn't need the BBC’s Gay Britannia season to get something this thoughtful and honest commissioned.
Man In An Orange Shirt airs Monday 9pm, BBC Two
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31 Jul 17 – 31 Aug 17, Man In An Orange Shirt airs Monday 9pm, BBC Two