PBS' Man In An Orange Shirt is a Heartbreaking Study of Love, Shame, and Suppressed Desire

Partly inspired by his father's secret past, author Patrick Gale has written a powerful, multi-generational gay love story for the small screen.


In 1974, celebrated Cornish author Patrick Gale gave his mother, Pippa, the manuscript of his future debut, The Aerodynamics of Pork. It was an unprecedentedly bold move: A story of suppressed homosexual desire, it wasn't exactly his Christian mother's usual fare. Moreover, it was his most formal "coming out" to date, having never felt the need to announce his sexuality in more concrete terms. 

Weeks later, Pippa provided her feedback—though it was an off-hand comment about Patrick's father, Michael, that shook the foundations of Patrick's life: "It will help [your father] come to terms with himself," Pippa said cryptically. Patrick recounts her subsequent confession in a recent piece for The Guardian.

In that piece, Patrick says that in 1961 Pippa Gale discovered a series of letters addressed to "my darling Michael," each signed by her husband's longtime best friend. Understanding Michael's secret truth and its terrifying consequences—prison time, social ruin—Pippa burned the letters that same day. Seven years would pass before Britain began decriminalizing homosexuality, though even this landmark legislation would make little difference to the Gales' marriage. Just as Michael continued to conceal his homosexuality, Pippa hid her knowledge of it—creating an invisible barrier that reverberated throughout their entire married lives.

It was the first time Patrick had heard his father was gay. And while his mother’s palpable disdain was certainly a sting, the revelation was a welcome validation of Patrick's own experience. Recognizing the power of his parents' story, it became the seed of his newest screenwriting project, the PBS Masterpiece drama Man In An Orange Shirt.

Set in 1940s Britain, the film sees Flora Talbot (Joanna Vanderham)—the soon-to-be-wife of army captain Michael Berryman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen)—find her fiancé's romantic correspondence with Thomas, an artist (James McArdle). Having met during the thick of battle—the trailer shows Michael looking affectionately down at an injured Thomas—we learn that the pair sought each other out after the Second World War. Trapped in a homophobic society, their romance was fraught with shame, secrecy, and the constant threat of imprisonment.

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  • Julian Morris and Vanessa Redgrave, as Adam and Flora in modern-day Britain, from "Man In An Orange Shirt." 

    Photo Credit: PBS

The second half of the movie takes place in our present-day, introducing us to a much older Flora (Vanessa Redgrave) and her grandson, Adam (Julian Morris). The discovery of one of Thomas' old paintings—a portrait of Michael in an orange shirt—leads Flora to reveal the heartbreaking story behind it. As a closeted gay man himself, Adam must then reflect on his own feelings of shame, self-loathing, and love for another man.

Man In An Orange Shirt originally aired in two parts on the BBC last year, to mark the 50th anniversary of Britain's Sexual Offences Act. U.S. viewers can catch the film on Sunday, June 17, when its shown in its entirety on PBS Masterpiece.

Discover Patrick Gale's novels, including The Aerodynamics of Pork.

Featured still from "Man In An Orange Shirt" (2017), via PBS