Patrick Gale reveals the secrets of Man in an Orange Shirt

The writer of the BBC drama talks about “gay shame”, acting legend Vanessa Redgrave and his story’s “missing” middle episode

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RT: There are many touching moments between Flora and Adam in the second film and it’s painful when they finally have that conversation about his sexuality. It will resonate with many people who are close to their grandparents but skirt around having “that conversation”. How close were you to your grandparents? Is this relationship closer to the one you had with your parents?

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Patrick Gale: I was close to both my parents and to my one surviving grandparent, but we never “had the conversation”. It was entirely characteristic that I came out to them by introducing them to the fact of a loving relationship, a thing they acknowledged with invitations and visits and birthday cards but which was never actually discussed. A great breakthrough for me was Aidan and me being granted one of the first civil partnerships because suddenly my mother could speak to her friends of “my son-in-law” rather than “Patrick’s er…” It normalised a relationship that had been a source of unspoken embarrassment.

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(Pictured: Julian Morris as Adam and Vanessa Redgrave as Flora)

RT: Flora is far from sympathetic towards homosexuality and tells both her husband and, many years later, her grandson that it’s “disgusting”. She likens gay people to animals. Despite this, I feel the viewer can’t help but understand her pain. She’s been deeply hurt by her experiences. At the BFI premiere, Vanessa Redgrave described Flora as “a woman who has had to fabricate a whole denial system throughout her life”. Your script and her performance oblige the viewer to empathise with her.

Patrick Gale: I do hope so. We live in a profoundly sexualised culture and I wanted to portray a woman who, although she embarks on marriage with all a young woman’s hopes and dreams, is not actually terribly interested in sex and cares more for loyalty and security. My mother never talked to me about my gay sex life, but then she never talked to my brother about his straight one either; some people just don’t like that stuff and they don’t often get a sympathetic hearing in drama.

RT: Towards the end, Flora mellows and says, “I’m trying to adjust. I can’t turn into a liberal overnight.” It always amuses me hearing such lines being spoken by Vanessa Redgrave, given her politics. It’s like when, as Ruth Wilcox in Howards End, she questions why on earth a woman would want to vote. At the BFI, she said her own father Sir Michael Redgrave was bisexual and many of her parents’ friends were gay during those repressive years but “the group always protected each other”. She brings a lifetime of empathy to this drama. Did you have her in mind for this role and were you involved in the casting in general?

Patrick Gale: Having Vanessa for the role was a totally unlooked for joy because she brings so much to the role. I had to do some persuading, because the character was one she initially found it so hard to inhabit, but her final performance really uses the conflict between her private attitudes and the ones she’s being called upon to express. Sometimes it’s as though she can hardly get the words out, and that’s incredibly powerful to watch.

RT: As the drama evolved in pre-production, it was condensed and lost one or two episodes. To arrive at a two-parter, you’ve skipped over the intervening years. It’s as though we step from Act One to Act Three. It’s achieved very elegantly but I’m left dying to know what happened to Michael and Thomas. In the first film, younger Flora predicts that Thomas will “drink himself to death in the sunshine” in France. In the second she tells her bridge circle that Michael died aged 60. What actually became of them – and what happened to Adam’s father Robert, whom we last see as a little boy in the first film?

Patrick Gale: I think Thomas will never have got over Michael, who was so utterly a kindred spirit for him, but he’ll have found plenty of emotional compensations along the way, not least in the South of France where 1950s attitudes were a lot more relaxed than those in London. He does, however, develop a drink problem (still a major health issue for many gay people) which drives him to an early death. Poor Michael worked on at the bank but, when news of Thomas’s distant death reaches him, suffers a kind of breakdown and takes early retirement under the excuse of health problems, and dies at 60, leaving Flora with a long widowhood. The fate of little Robert is a tricky one to describe as he had one fate in my first version of the story – becoming a closeted Tory MP, very much controlled by Flora and then rebelling to leave his wife for the man he loves and becoming a human rights lawyer. In the final version, though, in which adult Robert no longer has a role, I decided that he rebelled against Flora and Michael’s stuffiness, became a bit of a hippy character, shacked up with a girl of whom they disapproved, then died with her in a car crash. Leaving Flora to park little Adam in a boarding school and raise him in the only, rather distant way she knows.

RT: Would you consider adapting Man in an Orange Shirt into a novel, perhaps including the omitted middle act?

Patrick Gale: Lots of people are asking me to do this, including my editor (!) but I’m far too happy with how it has turned out on screen to want to meddle with it. Turning it into a novel would feel oddly retrograde. I can’t quite understand this as I have no issue with adapting novels for screen. I might, however, revisit the 1980s Aids-shadowed story I had to discard – my original second episode. It was a subversive romantic comedy and I really loved the characters and am still rather in mourning for them. So watch this space.

RT: I’ve been reading your books since The Aerodynamics of Pork, your very first in the mid 1980s. It’s often struck me how well they would lend themselves to adaptation for film or television. Surprisingly, none has been. Why do you think this is and are any in development?

Patrick Gale: Funnily enough I’ve adapted several of them – Kansas in August (twice) as a feature, Little Bits of Baby as a TV series, Rough Music and my vampire schoolgirl short story A Slight Chill as feature films etc – but I had no status or pulling power as a screenwriter and I was working for producers who couldn’t afford to hire anyone more expensive, perhaps. Still, it means I have a nicely filled bottom drawer of possibilities. One of my more recent novels is currently being adapted as a feature film by a really wonderful director/writer team and I’m currently adapting one of my novels as a four-part television series, but both projects are firmly under wraps for now…

RT: Which authors have inspired or influenced you most? And what are you reading this summer?

Patrick Gale: So many influencers, from Armistead Maupin and Iris Murdoch to Colm Tóibín and Barbara Trapido. Right now I’m reading Armistead’s upcoming memoir, Logical Family, and a stack of books by the amazing authors, like Maggie O’Farrell and Michael Morpurgo, coming to talk at the North Cornwall Book Festival, which I help run each October.

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(Below: Patrick Gale on set with actors Joanna Vanderham and Oliver Jackson-Cohen)

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