Bestselling author Patrick Gale talks to Radio Times’s Patrick Mulkern about his first TV drama, Man in an Orange Shirt. A jewel in the BBC’s Gay Britannia season, this poignant two-parter is set partly in the repressive 1940s and in 2017, and shows a family across time conflicted by attitudes towards homosexuality. (Pictured above: Patrick Gale with actors James McArdle and Oliver Jackson-Cohen who play Thomas and Michael)
Radio Times: Man in an Orange Shirt has fitted comfortably into the BBC’s Gay Britannia season but I understand that this is serendipity and it’s actually been in the planning for several years…
Patrick Gale: Absolutely. A very happy accident. The show has taken six years from first meeting to first transmission and was starting to feel like an intensely private obsession. It was originally planned as a mainstream drama for BBC1 that would just happen to focus on gay lives. I still think it’s mainstream and just happens to be about gay people and the families they’re born into – a bit like my novels.
RT: Episode one achieved respectable overnight ratings on BBC2 (1.16m), was trending on Twitter and widely acclaimed by viewers and critics. How do you feel about the reception it’s gained?
Patrick Gale: It has been amazing. I’m getting all this incredibly moving feedback from viewers who felt their lives or their parents’ lives have been reflected back at them. I suspect my publishers are pretty pleased as well!
RT: The BBC gave you a broad commission to write a drama that encompasses the gay experience over the past century. How daunting was that and how did you hone the approach you’ve taken?
Patrick Gale: It was a huge, slightly overwhelming commission and a massively flattering one. I began with a far less commercial proposition – three dramas set in three different periods which would be linked by the painting of the title, the cottage where each love story plays out and by having the same group of actors play parallel roles. I was encouraged to find ways of linking the stories more and that set me homing in on the psychology and emotion rather than the politics or the history. But, as we’re often told, the personal is political, and it’s often more effective to tell such stories from a deeply personal, close-up perspective as that’s, after all, the way we tend to experience the effect of politics and history on our lives.
RT: You’ve been remarkably candid about the drama being inspired by a secret in your own family’s past when, long ago, your mother discovered and burned love letters your father had received from another man. What qualms did you have about revealing publicly a matter so private to your parents?
Patrick Gale: I had huge qualms. My father had already died when I began developing the show and it was partly an act of mourning to reach imaginatively deep into the most secret, hidden part of his story. My mother died two years ago – during development – which relieved me of another layer of inhibition. Two of my siblings are still alive and understandably were concerned that I was exposing to public view a story my father believed he had taken to his grave as a secret. However, the overwhelmingly warm response the show has received makes me feel I did the right thing. Their sad secret turns out to be one that was shared by many a 1940s or 1950s marriage. I was especially keen to show, through Flora, how anti-gay legislation had a devastating effect on the lives of many heterosexual women.
RT: Yes, on the surface this could be perceived as a “gay drama” focusing on two male couples (Thomas and Michael, then Adam and Steve) finding true love in different times, but it also strikes me as Flora’s story more than anyone else’s. She is the constant between the two episodes, played by Joanna Vanderham in the postwar period and Vanessa Redgrave in 2017.
Patrick Gale: I’ve always loved writing women characters because so often women’s lives seem to be more multilayered than men’s ones, and far more complex. Through Flora I wanted to explore not only the terrible compromises the criminalisation of homosexuality forced into the lives of one in ten women (if you include mothers and grandmothers alongside wives) but also the roots of homophobia in buried shame and fear. It was icing on the cake to have two such incredibly versatile actors then bring Flora to life.
RT: Several of your novels cross time and depict a family in different decades. Rough Music (2000) builds a narrative between the present and 1968; The Facts of Life (1995) progresses from a couple in the 40s to their grandchildren in the 90s… This approach works beautifully in Man in an Orange Shirt, but I realised there’s almost 70 years between the first and second films. Vanessa Redgrave, now 80, was actually a child in the war years. Did you have to telescope time to facilitate the story you wanted to tell?
Patrick Gale: Not really. I’ve always believed that if multi-timeframe narratives are to work, then each strand has to be able to stand alone as its own self-contained drama. I write my multi-stranded novels that way – one period or one character at a time – and the same was true here. Each episode was conceived as its own story arc with its own concerns and only then did I come to pick out and emphasise the echoes between them. Old Flora is a very different woman to her younger self. She has spent the best part of her lifetime pretending, policing her responses, guarding against letting her vulnerability or secret shame show through a formidable exterior self.
RT: It’s intriguing that in an age where the word “pride” is so closely associated with LGBT identity, you chose shame as the key theme that ripples across time. It’s clear why Michael would have felt shame in the repressive 1940s, but in 2017 his grandson Adam tells Flora, “I’ve been ashamed my whole life.” Why did you take that angle and how difficult was it to pull off in the present climate of assumed equality and openness?
Patrick Gale: I knew I wanted to write about homophobia and at least one of its common causes and I feel strongly that homophobia is enabled, time and again, by a sense of shame hardwired in childhood into most LGBT people, a sense that they are somehow deserving of less respect or of worse treatment and a sense that they need to work harder than straight people at being perfect. You need only glance at a gay dating app to see that gay shame is alive and well – even in a sophisticated metropolis there are countless men hiding their faces and asking for “discretion”. As gay men go, I was an early developer, with gay friends in my teens and a lucky one, with a family who didn’t overtly reject me. Yet my sexuality was never acknowledged or discussed and the abiding sense of discomfort, embarrassment even, caused me to develop terrible eczema which lasted until the month I finally left home for university. It was that burden of loving disgust that I wanted to explore in my 21st-century story; it’s the story of gay man who appears to be functioning in the gay world, and yet is barely functioning on an emotional level because there are so many things in his life that are going unacknowledged and he has such a terror of intimacy and commitment.
RT: Adam is a wonderfully complex character. He’s compassionate and kind, a vet, has a cushy home-life in a London townhouse with his gran; but he’s also deeply unhappy, a sex addict and commitment-phobe, a slave to his dating app. What are you telling us about some modern gay behaviour?
Patrick Gale: I made it clear from the moment I accepted the commission that I wasn’t interested in writing anything straightforwardly celebratory. I wanted to challenge gay viewers as much as straight ones and I designed episode two to be profoundly uncomfortable watching for anyone tempted to believe that equality under the law is the end of the story. Yes, there are hundreds of well-adjusted gay people out there, truly loved and supported by their families and with emotional lives that are integrated into their work lives and so on. But there are also still a great many people who don’t feel able to be out at work, or to their parents and who – at great cost to their mental health – tell themselves that this is perfectly okay. If viewers don’t let out involuntary sighs or sobs at the moment when Steve finally takes away the nail brush from Adam’s neurotic grip and gently washes him with a flannel, I’ll have failed in my attempt to get this message across.