Wed. Dec 1st, 2021
How we made

‘I thought we were going to make history with our same sex kiss. And we did. There were protests all over America – and a bomb threat in Chattanooga’

Armistead Maupin, author and executive producer of the Channel 4 series

I wrote Tales of the City for the San Francisco Chronicle. It then mushroomed from one novel into a series of nine. To say my parents didn’t like them would be an understatement. When Tales came out in 1978, they wrote to me: “Read Tales of the City today; moving to Zanzibar tomorrow.” There were a lot of gay characters in Tales, that was kind of the point, but my books were never prurient.

In the 70s, Warner Brothers bought the options, and I got a T-shirt made that said: “Soon to be major motion picture.” It didn’t happen. I wish it had: until Tales, LGBTQ+ people on screen were always miserable and usually died. On no account could they be happy. But it was only when Channel 4 came on board in the 90s that anything happened. Richard Kramer wrote and directed the first scripts – he was very faithful to the book, but put in stuff of his own that I’ve often taken the credit for!

As a kid, I loved doll’s houses. When I saw the set for the first time, it was magical: a grownups doll’s house. They had built 28 Barbary Lane [the idyllic boarding house run by Mrs Madrigal, who presides over the novels’ characters] just as I imagined it. I climbed those stairs decorated with fairy lights, wandered through the rooms of hippyish, bisexual Mona and heterosexual lothario Brian. Not many writers get to do that.

‘I was the last GI out of Cambodia’ … Maupin in 1993. Photograph: Tim Roney/Getty Images

I suggested Olympia Dukakis play Mrs Madrigal, who was the first sympathetic fictional trans character (and I’m not counting Myra Breckinridge). But all the characters are really projections of me. I remember watching a scene being filmed on Russian Hill in San Francisco, when Marcus D’Amico, playing Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, kisses another man. I thought: “We’re going to make history!” We did too. There were protests all over America from rightwing Christians. There was a bomb threat in Chattanooga at TV channel WTCI, which pulled Tales of the City from schedules an hour before airtime. And there were demonstrations on the steps of Oklahoma’s State Capitol. These were really the first shots in the culture wars leading up to Trump.

It had huge ratings and won a Peabody award, but the American Family Association hated it. Local stations did some weird things like pixellating a nipple if there was a breast in shot and, under pressure from the Christian right, US distributor PBS bailed after the first series. Channel 4 produced two further seasons, More Tales and Further Tales, and Showtime screened those in the US.

Three books from the series have never been adapted: Babycakes, Significant Others and Sure of You. Instead, in 2019 Netflix made Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. In it, Mary Ann returns to Barbary Lane after 23 years for Anna Madrigal’s 90th birthday. The world has evolved since the 1970s, when the books were originally set, so we made some changes. When we auditioned for a Hispanic trans actor to play the young Mrs Madrigal, hundreds turned up.

I’ve had a lot of adventures. I was the last GI out of Cambodia – but only because I was on the back of the last boat, having a shower, naked and covered in soap. I’m now having the last adventure of my life in London with my husband and labradoodle Zeke. I’m not done with the people of 28 Barbary Lane. I’m writing a Tales novel about Mona’s early life. She married a lord and now lives in a Cotswold manor house.

‘This was my break’ … Laura Linney in the 1993 series. Photograph: Alamy

Laura Linney, played Mary Ann Singleton

When I arrived on set, I was as wide-eyed as Mary Ann. I knew theatre, but not how TV and film worked. I’d been in the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil, but only for about four seconds. It was while working on that, though, that makeup artist David Forrest told me I had to read Tales of the City. I did – and then a year later I got a call to read for a role. But they thought I’d work better as a naive girl from Ohio, even though then I was nearly 10 years older than Mary Ann. This was my break: I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t played her.

I only realised what a big deal Tales was when the hullabaloo started. I worked in New York City, and in theatre there, meaning I never felt like I was an outsider to the LGBTQ+ world. So when PBS got cold feet after conservative pressure, I was shocked. But I was really proud of what we did and what it meant to so many people. It was the first representation of a community that didn’t make them the butt of a joke.

I’ve never felt so close to a cast and crew as I did – and do – with Tales. I miss Olympia and Marcus so much [both died last year]. I even gave my son Bennett the middle name Armistead. What was so wonderful about the fictional world he created was that it was for everyone. I love him for that.

• Armistead Maupin is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 6 October, and tours until 26 October. The original series is available to stream on Channel 4. The 2019 update is on Netflix.

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