Guest writer Hadley reflects on Man in an Orange Shirt, part of the BBC’s Gay Britannia season.
For those of you who caught the second half of Man in an Orange Shirt on BBC Two last night, I applaud any of you who did not shed a tear for this moving love story. As part of the BBC’s Gay Britannia season, which marks 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality through a plethora of documentaries, radio programmes and dramas, a tale of four gay men living in two very different periods of time gripped viewers and reminded some of their own personal experiences of living as a gay man in the United Kingdom.
Our first couple, Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Thomas (James McArdle), fall in love at a time when being gay was illegal. Although the first part of Man in an Orange Shirt is set well before 1967, it’s amazing to think that only 50 years have passed since male homosexuality was partially decriminalised and about the social progression that has followed since this time. Fast-forward to the present day and Adam (Julian Morris) and Steve (David Gyasi) face more contemporary barriers to their love. Adam, in particular, is grappling with his own relationship with hook-up apps and coming out to his grandmother, who forms a bridge between the two love stories as Michael’s widow.
It’s unsurprising that this drama has provoked reflection amongst its viewers, who took to Twitter to share their thoughts following Monday’s concluding instalment. Alastair Stewart, ITV newsreader, remarked that it was “the finest and most thoughtful contribution in this period of reflection on pre-1967 and post-1967 attitudes.” Writer and journalist Philip Ellis penned a thread about his experiences of coming out as a teenager, thanking the screenwriter Patrick Gale for a “beautiful, moving story.” Fellow tweeter Stewart Bain commented on the ending of Man in an Orange Shirt; “A gay love story with a happy ending. That’s a welcome change.”
On a personal note, the two-part drama made me thankful to be living at a time and in a country where my sexual orientation is not considered to be a crime. The freedom that 50 years of change has given me is something that I and many other younger gay men undoubtedly take for granted. The law has thankfully changed; however, there is still a mountain to climb with regards to attitudes within our society – homophobia being a constant reminder of this. In our schools, many LGBTQ+ young people are facing bullying and intimidation, with long-lasting effects on their mental health and emotional well-being. Beyond the school gates, victims of hate crimes don’t always feel able to come forward and report these incidents to the police, fearing that they will not be dealt with appropriately and sensitively. What’s more, LGBTQ+ people who use social media will be all too aware of the discriminatory content that appears on these sites. Social media platforms must therefore do more to facilitate the reporting of this content and ban people who chose to abuse others through the anonymity of the internet.
Some have questioned the frequency of LGBTQ+ storylines on our TV screens. It’s true that we seldom see four gay characters leading a television drama. What’s more, this drama was aired as part of a season of TV and radio programmes to celebrate a milestone in gay history – will the BBC continue to commission similar dramas once the Gay Britannia season comes to an end? I fear that viewing statistics will have a more prominent impact upon commissioning decisions than a desire to bring about changes to societal attitudes. It’s clear that the reasons behind people choosing not to watch TV programmes with LGBTQ+ main characters are multifaceted, but we should encourage others outside the LGBTQ+ community to watch dramas like Man in an Orange Shirt so that they too can learn from previously untold stories.
The airing on Man in an Orange Shirt on BBC Two will have also gone some way to bringing about awareness of LGBTQ+ issues, perhaps amongst viewers who may not have already watched television shows with main characters who are gay. It’s clear that such storylines are too few and far between; yet, it’s important to acknowledge their impact when they do appear on our screens. As a gay man, I would welcome future gay storylines that portray the contemporary lived experiences of other gay men on ‘mainstream’ TV channels. On the other hand, I think it’s also important to acknowledge the lack of representation of the rest of the LGBTQ+ community, alongside some of the past mistakes that have been made when attempting to reflect the lives of bisexual and trans people in particular. It is clear that Man in an Orange Shirt has touched the lives of many, provoking thought and identifying gaps in representation amid TV storylines. The BBC and other broadcasters must now continue to build upon the success of the Gay Britannia season, in order to ensure that the stories of LGBTQ+ people do not go unheard.
Follow Hadley on Twitter (@wordsbyhadley)