Damien Love’s TV highlights including Man In An Orange Shirt
THE UK’S BEST TV CRITIC DAMIEN LOVE RAMPAGES HIS WAY THROUGH THE WEEK IN TELEVISION
Monday Man In An Orange Shirt 9pm, BBC Two Queers 10pm, BBC Four
WRITTEN by novelist Patrick Gale, the two-part Man In An Orange Shirt forms the centrepiece of the BBC’s Gay Britannia season, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act that decriminalised “homosexual acts” between men over 21 in England and Wales. (In Scotland and Northern Ireland, it pays to remember, the law wouldn’t change until the 1980s.)
For his story, which splits – too neatly – across two time frames, Gale has drawn on personal and family history, particularly a story his mother told him about an incident shortly before he was born. One day, while pregnant with him, she found some old letters stuffed in his father Michael’s desk. Beginning to read, she realised it was a cache of love letters – and then that, rather than being from some passionate old girlfriend, as she first assumed, they were from the man she had always known as Michael’s best friend. A version of that discovery lies at the heart of the first episode. Following a present-day prologue in which we meet the elderly Flora (Vanessa Redgrave) and her adult grandson, Adam (Julian Morris), the drama
flashes back to the final years of the Second World War. While she teaches in England, young Flora’s fiancé Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is overseas, fighting alongside Thomas (James McArdle), a war artist. Convalescing after a heavy attack, they spend more and more time together until, on the final night before they get posted in different directions, they grab a last-chance kiss.
After the war, rather than return immediately to Flora, Michael tracks Thomas down to his London studio. The two retreat to a country cottage owned by Michael’s family, and spend a brief, idyllic spell living together, before returning to the city, and to real life in a country determined to crush and dehumanise them, where being gay is an imprisonable offence. Michael marries Flora, and resigns to keeping his true self hidden – until the bitter night she finds love letters Thomas wrote him.
Gale’s drama is sincere, well intentioned and from the heart. But there’s something lacking. Man In An Orange Shirt feels familiar and predictable, a story we’ve seen far too often before. Of course, it represents a story too many people were forced to live out, but there’s no convincing heat or life.
Next week, part two, which flips to the present to see the still-bitter Flora trying to come to terms with her life and feelings as her grandson wrestles with his sexuality in today’s ostensibly easier climate, is more interesting, if only for giving the imperious Redgrave more screentime. But the opening episode doesn’t offer many reasons to return. Mired in syrupy music, it’s prettified, worthy, tragically hand-wringing and deadeningly polite, doffing its cap to gain entrance to the prime time living rooms of the UK. Compared with the subversive, two-fingers-up stance of “a gay drama” like Prick Up Yours 30 years ago (in which Redgrave also featured), it looks like a backward step.
There’s more surprising and moving life, however, in Queers (BBC Four), also part of the season. Eight monologues by different writers operating in different moods and different periods, all directed by Mark Gatiss, these 20-minute miniatures are going out in double bills Monday-Thursday. Look out in particular for tonight’s opener, The Man On The Platform, written by Gatiss, with a wonderful performance from Ben Whishaw as a First World War soldier; and Tuesday’s Missing Alice, by Jon Bradfield, brilliantly delivered by Rebecca Front as a 1950s wife.