Sex, Drugs and Sourdough : ‘Tales of the City,’ Armistead Maupin’s chronicle of ‘70s San Francisco, finally comes to TV--thanks to the British. ‘I’ve been out of the closet for almost 20 years of my life, and I’ve been penalized for that’

<i> David Gritten is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

There’s Michael Mouse, the warm, funny, generous gay guy looking for love in all the wrong places. There’s Mary Ann, the strait-laced Midwesterner who comes to loosen up and love the wild, anything-goes atmosphere of San Francisco in the ‘70s. There’s Brian the womanizing waiter, Jon the gay gynecologist and, of course, Anna Madrigal, the infinitely tolerant, kimono-clad landlady of a certain age, who tapes a joint to new tenants’ doors--just to make them feel welcome. . . .

It was almost 20 years ago that San Francisco-based writer Armistead Maupin began chronicling the lives of a fictional group of people--gay and straight, younger and older, uptight and free-spirited alike--all of whom were somehow connected to 28 Barbary Lane, a funky brown-shingle apartment house with almost mystical qualities in the city’s Russian Hill district.

Maupin’s stories about this group and their sexual, social and emotional exploits first saw light in a Marin County newspaper in 1974. Two years later they became a regular column-cum-serial in the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1978, they were published in novel form as “Tales of the City.” During the next decade, Maupin took his characters through six novels of tribulations, life changes and plot turns.


There are those who regard Maupin’s works as modern American classics--novels as social history in the tradition of Charles Dickens. Their light comic touch, dramatic twists and memorable characterizations made them seem eminently adaptable to film or television.

For a long time, though, it didn’t happen. Despite overtures to Maupin from Hollywood studios and TV networks, “Tales of the City” has resisted adaptation.

Until now, that is. On a sound stage at Occidental Studios this year, just off Beverly Boulevard near downtown Los Angeles, 28 Barbary Lane was re-created in all its ‘70s glory. “Tales of the City” is finally coming to American TV screens, though by a backdoor route: British television’s Channel 4 is making six one-hour episodes based on Maupin’s first volume, which will be seen as part of the PBS “American Playhouse” series, airing in two-hour blocks Jan. 10-12.

“About time, wouldn’t you say?” Maupin said with a wry sigh as he surveyed the faux apartment house.

He believes the reasons for the reluctance of American broadcasters and movie studios to embrace “Tales of the City” are complex. Being an outspoken gay writer (with a partner, Terry Anderson, who is a committed gay activist) is, he thinks, one factor.

“I’ve been out of the closet for almost 20 years of my life, and I’ve been penalized for that,” Maupin mused.

“In this country my books go on the gay shelf of bookstores. Yet my books have always been for everyone--they started as a daily newspaper series, so their intention was to reach the broadest audience imaginable. But because I can’t keep my mouth shut about certain injustices involving gay people, I’ve been marginalized. That’s a price I’ve been willing to pay, because those issues are important to me.”

The other major problem in adapting “Tales of the City” is the speed with which society’s attitudes toward sex and drug use have changed.

The book predates the AIDS epidemic, which has afflicted San Francisco’s gay community since the early 1980s, and though no homosexual or heterosexual activity is explicitly represented, it is an integral part of the life of Maupin’s characters. The sex in “Tales of the City” is true to its period--usually unsafe, often casual and dealt with by the author in non-judgmental fashion. Drug use too permeates the novel.

“I was told by one TV executive that if it were to be broadcast, it would need to be preceded by a health warning,” Maupin said.

His conversations about adapting “Tales” with networks and studios stretch back 14 years, when Warner Bros. first made inquiries. “It was often women (executives) who got behind the project initially,” he said.

“A producer who bought the option invited me to dinner one night with the screenwriter he was proposing for it. The writer said how fabulously talented I was--then hit me with the idea that the gay gynecologist be made into a serial killer.” Maupin giggled at the memory. “And this was fully 10 years before the idea of homo serial killers became popular in movies. I should have seen it coming, I suppose. I almost hesitate telling the story; it sounds like I made it up.”

The same applies to his experiences at CBS, which in the early ‘80s wanted to make a series from “Tales.” “They indicated they had no problem with the material until I was minutes away from signing the contract, when they said they might have to eliminate the gay and lesbian characters. As if this was a minor consideration from my viewpoint.

“I told them taking gay people out of Maupin was like taking poor people out of Dickens.”


It took a British TV company to come to Maupin’s rescue. Proportionally he is far more popular in Britain than in the United States. The “Tales of the City” series caught on quickly there, and his recent novel “Maybe the Moon,” his first departure from the “Tales of the City” characters, immediately hit the British bestseller lists on publication.

“American’s a much bigger place, and we don’t read as much or share books with our friends as they do in Britain,” Maupin said. “It’s harder for a book to be a word-of-mouth phenomenon in the U.S. You either have to be popular trash or high literary. And I’m neither.”

Even so, it took the British three years to get to the point of shooting “Tales of the City.” Working Title, a London-based production company, optioned the “Tales” books in 1990 and persuaded Channel 4 to join in developing them in the hope of making 13 hours of material from the first two “Tales” volumes.

“Armistead felt a British company would be able to do the novels as written,” said Antony Root, who is producing the series. And Working Title had already handled material with gay themes--the feature film “My Beautiful Laundrette” and Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio” and “Edward II.”

Richard Kramer, a writer and producer for the acclaimed ABC drama series “thirtysomething,” was commissioned to write a screenplay from the two books. (Maupin did not attempt to write a script, believing that someone “less emotionally attached to the characters was needed to bring a fresh eye to them.”)

The idea was that Working Title would secure the British financing and its sister company in America, Propaganda Films (both are part of the PolyGram group), would find U.S. money.

“But by (the summer of 1992) it was clear that no one in America would come in at the level we needed,” Root said. “So Channel 4 took the bold step of agreeing to fund six hours, from the first book only, on their own.”


A budget of about $8 million was agreed upon, and a cast was hired, headed by Olympia Dukakis, an Oscar winner for her work in “Moonstruck,” as Anna Madrigal. Michael is played by Marcus d’Amico, who won raves in London in the National Theatre’s production of “Angels in America”; Mary Ann is played by Laura Linney, who briefly but memorably appeared as the President’s secretary and mistress in the movie “Dave.” There are cameos for Ian McKellen, the British acting knight and gay activist, and for Rod Steiger.

So the TV version of “Tales of the City” became reality. And at Occidental Studios, Maupin, 49, a portly, amiable figure in lilac sports shirt and jeans, strolled through the set designer’s vision of 28 Barbary Lane with a wide smile on his face.

“It’s quite unbelievable, seeing all this made flesh, as it were,” he said.

On the side of the building is a series of rickety wooden staircases, suitable for intense, soul-baring conversations and late-night trysts between its tenants. Its interior takes you back two decades to an era of dubious design values; macrame everywhere from wall decorations to hanging baskets, orange flower prints on fabrics, a ubiquitous poster of a nude from Picasso’s blue period.

The house’s kitchen is, as one production designer wryly put it, “a symphony in harvest gold and avocado.” Period magazines are strewn on a table, including a Rolling Stone from the days when it was for radical-minded rock music fans. A Sears catalogue from the time displays platform shoes, flared pants and sun dresses in ghastly Day-Glo hues.


“These are period clothes I didn’t like even in the period,” actress Dukakis muttered, kicking off a pair of uncomfortable gold shoes with square heels. “But some of the clothes I do like--they were more dramatic, much flashier, back then.”

In her dressing room, Dukakis arose and did a little pirouette to illustrate her point. She was wearing black silk pajamas, extravagantly flared.

“But wait, wait, there’s more,” she urged, retiring briefly to her dressing room and emerging in a floor-length orange robe. “And just to top it all off,” she added, donning a black cloche hat: “There! That’s what Anna Madrigal does her gardening in!” She laughed uproariously.

She might feel that she was fated to play Madrigal. In the sixth volume of Maupin’s collection, Anna goes on a kind of pilgrimage to visit the Greek island of Mitilini, ancestral home of the actress’s cousin Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988. “Almost spooky, isn’t it?” she said.

Dukakis is relishing her role, and described Kramer’s adaptation as “wonderful, one of the best I’ve ever read from another genre.”

“It’s also that so much of what Armistead has written just jumps off the page,” she said. “It’s like a Bruegel painting, with all of life here, there and everywhere. There’s a real vitality and energy about it.”

Kramer said he had already tried to adapt “Tales of the City” for a TV network in 1981: “It was conceived at the time as a half-hour show, running for 13 weeks. I wrote it as a quasi-situation comedy, and I have long since misplaced it.”

His approach for the Channel 4 production was quite different, he noted: “The events in the book are 18 years old, but now they seem like a century ago. One of the challenges in writing this was not to wink at the future (by alluding to later events like the AIDS crisis).

“I tried to make each of the six hours have a consistent feeling to them. The aim was to make the audience feel complete, give them enough emotional closure, but make them want to come back for more.

“My sense of what an hour of TV should be came from ‘thirtysomething,’ which was useful in writing this. But I realized that Armistead had really influenced me in some of the things I did in ‘thirtysomething.’ The way we dealt with the gay characters in that show--we didn’t make a big deal about them being gay and hoped the audience wouldn’t. I’d already found a useful way of doing that in reading ‘Tales of the City.’ It came naturally.”

Still, Kramer also observed that “American TV is not by nature risk-taking,” and he is unsure how the series will be received by U.S. audiences.

Alan Poul, the U.S. producer of “Tales of the City,” thinks it might arouse controversy, but added: “If this was released theatrically, it would be a PG show. There is nothing in this show a child should not be permitted to see.”

For his part, British director Alistair Reid (who also directed the acclaimed miniseries “Traffik,” which aired on PBS in 1991) thinks the adapted version of “Tales of the City” should aim for as broadly based an audience as Maupin’s original newspaper columns.

“I was determined not to approach this as being the sole property of the gay community,” he said during a break in shooting. “I’m simply telling a very good story, which is a mixture. On the face of it, it’s a comedy, also a thriller and also a very tender love story. It’s full of surprises, coincidences and characters bumping into each other. A lot of the characters have a secret; they aren’t quite who they seem.”

With this last fact in mind, Reid has introduced a subplot to Kramer’s script, revolving around Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Vertigo,” which was set in San Francisco.

“We make both covert and open references to the film, which was one that greatly influenced Armistead,” Reid said. “It has a theme about not being able to identify people, and it has character (played by Kim Novak) who has reinvented herself. So it fits. We even have the rights to use Bernard Herrmann’s music from ‘Vertigo,’ along with music from the ‘70s.”


Although 12 of 50 shooting days were set aside for exterior shots in San Francisco, the bulk of Kramer’s script takes place at 28 Barbary Lane.

“I’m not pretending this is anything but a studio set,” Reid said. “There’s a marvelous quality about the artificiality of a studio set. It becomes a world of its own, and we can introduce moments of magical realism into the story. I think ‘Tales of the City’ is as close to magical realism as you can get. It reminds me of (Gabriel Garcia) Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera.’ It’s hyped-up realism, using accidents and happenstance in a way beyond anything real.”

Maupin echoes the sentiment. “You’d never get a set looking like that on network TV,” he said gleefully. “But then this script would never make it on to network TV, which is why ‘American Playhouse’ is kind of perfect for it. Any network would turn all this into ‘Melrose Place.’ Anna Madrigal would never have taped a joint to tenants’ doors. That would look like an endorsement of drug use.”

He gazed up at the apartment building, which has housed the characters who have consumed him for two decades now: “Mainstream America will not discover how truly mainstream this story is till they see it on TV.”