Tales of the City - It Feels Like Home
Updated: May 19
As a teenager, I was desperate for anything that would help me make sense of who I was. This was the 80s and diverse role models were scarce. Let's face it, The Cure, the brat pack and Jean-Paul Sartre were still essentially straight men. And so, I would spend hours hanging around Waterstones pouring over new book releases, hoping I might find a novel that would speak to my nascent sense of difference, and that a stranger might catch my eye, as I flicked through an Edmund White. Neither of these things ever happened.
I love literature, but as at eighteen-year-old it was all about the 'A Level' English Lit reading list, and that meant Jane Austen, Arthur Miller and Bertolt Brecht, with a few battered Agatha Christie paperbacks on the side. I am sure Austen covers the human condition but something was missing for me.
And then I came across Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. The covers gave nothing away but the books were about to change my life.
With Tales of the City, I was suddenly transported into the heady world of San Francisco in the late 70s where a gay protagonist - yes a gay protagonist! - dreamt of love and went cruising at the 24/7 supermarket, and the eccentric transsexual landlady of 28 Barbary Lane kept an eye on her ‘logical family’, sometimes sellotaping a joint to someone's front door for when they needed it.
I loved the Tales of the City series immediately, these were people with jobs and lives and friends. It was matter-of-fact and ordinary, yet ground-breaking. This meant everything to me as a teenager growing up in a time where tomb stones were falling over in public health advertisements, and the legal age of consent was 21, and you could get beaten up for even looking at another man.
And I desperately wanted Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver to find love, and be happy, and not to die of AIDS, which was the outcome for most gay characters in books, film and TV back in the late 80s, because that was the reality then, but I didn't want that for Michael because of course Michael’s story was my story too.
To this day, Michael’s ‘coming out’ letter, ‘Dear Moma’, has helped countless people navigate their sexuality, and their place in the world. You can watch Sir Ian Mckellen read it here:
Without doubt, it is one of the most powerful pieces of 20th century writing. So, it is no exaggeration to say Maupin’s books helped me find myself. And I loved the idea of 28 Barbary Lane, a community of likeminded outsiders, a place of acceptance with a sense of belonging. I wanted this life so badly, where family was unconditional, and love was complicated, and sex came with a safe message, but was still sexy and romantic.
Fast forward 30 years - yikes - and Netflix has just released a new TV series of Tales of the City, based on Maupin’s more recent books. Many of the old characters are back. Olympia Dukakis is of course Anna Madrigal and Laura Linney is Mary Ann Singleton. Murray Bartlett, from the brilliant HBO series Looking, plays Michael Tolliver, which is perfect casting. I love Elliot Page as Shawna, though a couple of the new characters are a little more tricky, Margot is slowly growing on me, the twins less so. Without giving anything away, Jen Richards is the stand-out as the young Anna finding her way in the 1950s.
I am fiercely loyal to Tales of the City but like much in life, I have had to accept that time moves on, and that it is not just my story any longer. The new series tackles the many different opinions of the LGBTQI community in a post-AIDS, post-literate, gender fluid, millennial San Francisco. It will not appeal to everyone, maybe that is the whole point.
But at the heart of Tales of the City is still a message which speaks across the generations. As Anna Madrigal says, ‘we’re still people ... flawed ... narcissistic and doing our best’. All the characters eventually find out, it is not about changing who you are, it is about finding who you are. Sometimes we need a place to do that, somewhere safe and secure, a community that nourishes us rather than depletes us. We all need our own 28 Barbary Lane.