Man in an Orange Shirt: A blameless love and a painful history

Patrick Gale’s debut screen drama is based on the compromise of his own parents

In any love story, there is a temptation to sentimentalise the flowering of desire rather than render it in more awkward detail. Why let reality get in the way of a good romance?

A coy mistiness is not quite available to Patrick Gale, though, the author making his screen debut in Man in an Orange Shirt (BBC Two, Monday, 9pm), which depicts a gay love story in 1940s Britain, in which attraction and affection is necessarily covert.

Gale, basing his story on the unhappy accommodation between his own parents, honours the historical context that pushes gay passion into dark corners, without making his romance feel grimy. The most daring thing about the drama, the first of two connected stories during the BBC’s Gay Brittania season, is how it reaches its own accommodation between a blameless love and a painful history. It’s hard to think of another weepie, for instance, which includes so many references to cottaging.

It is a difficult symbol to repurpose, sex instigated in public toilets, something more synonymous with celebrity scandals than love affairs. That makes Gale's inclusions more boldly fascinating. His secret lovers, Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), an army captain, and Thomas (James McArdle), a wounded soldier and artist, first unite in Italy when Thomas needs assistance relieving himself behind a tree.

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Their romance develops while sequestered in a country cottage, where Thomas paints his lover as a faceless man in a doorway. They have passionate, aggressive confrontations in a bathroom during Michael’s wedding. And later, separated by this hollow marriage, they both visit notorious public lavatories – landing Thomas in jail for gross indecency. It is a compassionate evocation of how sexuality is contorted when castigated and criminalised: What else can they do?

The betrayal of Michael’s wife Flora (Joanna Vanderham), though, is a more conventionally pitiable and somehow treated less sympathetically. When Michael returns home at the end of the war, his first visit is to Thomas, and if their passionate affair is a cause for her heartbreak, nobody told the syrupy serenade of composer Dan Jones’s strings. They get the love and they get the music.

Poor Flora, then, switches abruptly from naif to harridan, discovering her husband’s love letters and burning them, a bitter victim denied her own chance at passion. Though she can barely understand her husband’s orientation, it is she who finally makes the compromise, becoming a martyr of denial: “I never want details. You must never get caught. We will never talk about it.”

Such severity and self-laceration make her seem more distant to us than the handsome, doomed lovers, as though she is the figure from history. What else can she do?

To never address such secrets is the tragedy of Gale’s hasty drama – while Michael and Flora are packing their child off to boarding school, he is still darting after strangers into restrooms – and the second part, set 60 years later, will wonder at the consequences of that furtive inheritance. In both cases, there is drama and understanding, however belated, in bringing these hidden lives out into the light.