Why Tales of the City is still a revolutionary show

Armistead Maupins creation has been rebooted for a new generation. Laura Linney and its makers talk LGBTQ life on TV

For five decades, Tales of the City has been life-affirming, life-changing and even life-saving. Armistead Maupins books, which began as a newspaper column in 1976, took readers inside the daydream world of Barbary Lane, where the matriarch and landlady Mrs Madrigal presided over a group of friends and lovers in San Francisco straight, gay, cisgender and transgender at a time when queer life was rarely depicted outside of queer circles. The series concluded with a ninth instalment, The Days of Anna Madrigal, in 2014, but there is new life for these characters in the form of a glossy, hypercolour Netflix TV revival, or reimagining, depending on who you talk to. It is rare that a fictional universe is held quite so dearly as the world of Mouse, Mary Ann and Mrs Madrigal. Maupin knows it all too well. All I have to do is go out in Soho to a bar, and, my God! he exclaims.


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    The author admits that he had some apprehension about allowing a new version to be adapted. I was nervous, he concedes. Turning your baby over to these other people, and God knows what theyre going to do to it But he soon realised it was safe with the (mostly) younger generation of new writers and directors. Soon as I saw the scripts, I knew they were not only on the right track, they were going to make me sound hipper than I was, he chuckles. Maupin is 75, and has recently relocated to London with his husband for what he calls a last chapter that is different. The move has coincided with a revived interest in Tales of the City, which first came to the small screen as a pioneering Channel 4 miniseries in 1993, and has been revived sporadically ever since.

    Over the past 25 years it would bubble up, says Laura Linney, who executive-produced the new series and has played the perpetual Alice in Wonderland character of Mary Ann Singleton since the first book made its way to Channel 4. The show last appeared on Showtime as Further Tales of the City, in 2001, but all of a sudden, things felt a little different, says Linney. It felt like: Oh, this might actually happen. I could tell it was the right time, and I could tell there was a different kind of interest. When Netflix picked it up, she says, we were off to the races.

    Certainly, the climate has changed since that first miniseries aired. When it debuted in the US on PBS in 1994, Tales of the City received critical acclaim and high ratings but attracted protests and threats from religious fundamentalists around the country. The network bowed to the pressure and pulled out of funding a sequel. I was just shocked. I was so surprised, in a very naive, Mary Ann Singleton way, Linney recalls. I was stunned by the nastiness, and heartbroken at the time that PBS would drop the series. But in some ways, that was a very awkward part of the evolution of it all.

    Maupin had been used to controversy surrounding anything to do with the book. When it went into novel form [in 1978], I had the sales rep say: I represent Arizona, but I would never sell the book there, because they just wouldnt like it in Arizona. The presumption of prejudice held it back at every stage of the game. The 2019 TV version has been a new experience entirely. The dramatic difference now is that the culture has arrived at a point where theyre saying, were hiring all-queer writers, and theyre bragging about it.

    Reintroducing Barbary Lane to the world required an overhaul, given that life for queer people had transformed since 1976, and even since the first series in 1993. The thing thats wonderful about whats happened now, as opposed to then, is that these stories are now being told by people from the LGBTQ community, says Linney. All of our writers are queer. All of our directors are queer. That wasnt possible in 93. Its a shift, and its an important one, that these stories are being told by voices that are authentic. Im very proud of that.


     
    The
    The cast of the first series of Tales of the City in 1993. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

    Part of that shift has led to the beginnings of a quiet revolution in the way that trans characters are portrayed on screen, with increasing calls for trans actors to be given those roles. At 87, Olympia Dukakis is returning as Anna Madrigal, whom she has played since 1993, which could have put a modern queer television series in a bind. It could have been a dilemma, agrees Maupin. The solution has been to have an episode that flashes back to Annas younger days, and to cast a trans actor, Jen Richards, in the role. I love that weve got a trans woman playing the young Olympia. The pioneering that Olympia did has led to the hiring of a trans actor, whos amazing, he says. I mean, I dont think anyone who knows the original would begrudge Olympia her cisgenderness, because shes been so sympathetic to the project all along.

    Tales of the City brings this nuance to an era in which queer stories are no longer quite so rare on screen. In 1993, it was unheard of; it didnt exist, says Linney. There were a few instances of gay characters, but they were seen as the fop or the villain. They were not seen as people.

    Its so rare, still, that we see queer stories being told. When we do see them, theyre often sidelined, says showrunner Lauren Morelli. They are the B or C story to someone elses A story. Theyre a friend. Theyre the person who gets picked up when the writers have time.

    Everyone involved in the new Tales of the City is aware of how much these characters have meant to generations of readers and viewers. Oh my God, I feel all the pressure in the world! says Morelli, explaining that they have to satisfy both old and new viewers. On my best days, that feels like a great opportunity. On my worst days, it feels like queer people are so starved for representation that you dont want to mess it up.


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    But Tales is in safe hands, and this new series is a celebration of the world that Maupin built. Linney has been worried about how original fans might receive it. I was concerned, she says. I think we all were. But you know, you give it a go. You do the best you can. Is everyone going to love it? Probably not. But I think for some people it will make them feel less alone. And for that, Im all for it.

    Tales of the City is on Netflix from Friday 7 June

    Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure discussion remains on topics raised by the writer. Please be aware there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.

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