More than 40 years after his first novel was published, and Tales Of The City has inspired a brand new series on Netflix – on which he serves as an executive producer – reuniting us with classic characters from the original books and introducing a host of new ones.
Before the show’s debut, HuffPost UK was able to speak to Armistead about all things Tales Of The City, as well as the landmark changes he’s seen the LGBTQ+ community go through since his stories were first published...
Why is this the right time for Tales Of The City to come back?
First of all, I think our hearts are all aching right now, over the sorry state of the world and the country. And this show is a balm for that. It believes in the goodness of people, and it promotes kindness and tolerance, without a scrap of violence.
How was it handing over the characters you created to a brand new team?
It was scary, but when I saw what they were doing I was entranced by it.
I was told very early on by Lauren Morelli, our showrunner, that she would see to it that the writers’ room maintained the DNA of Tales, and that was a very convincing argument. She had an amazing writers’ room that, in terms of its diversity, racially and sexually and gender-wise, was so complete, that the storylines just kind of burst into flower.
And we needed a younger flavour to the show, and that’s what Lauren brought to it and delivered while maintaining the total spirit of Tales. It was everything I hoped for, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it myself, frankly. That’s 10 hours of television, and I had many years doing the books, and it’s a completely different kind [of writing].
Was there anything you, as executive producer were really keen to include in the new show, or anything you specifically didn’t want?
No. There were a couple of times that I nixed things, but not many. And I don’t want to say what they are because it would embarrass the writer, but there was one very bad idea. We referred to it as “the woodchipper scene” at one point… but I’m telling you more than I meant to.
How key was it to have Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, who played Mary Anne and Anna Madrigal in the original Tales Of The City, back for this one?
Oh, we couldn’t have done it without them. Thank God they both value and treasure their place in the Tales canon and wanted to come back. They’re believable [in the show] because they love each other, and they grew to love each other in the course of making the previous series.
And were you excited to get Ellen Page on board?
From the moment I heard that Ellen Page was under consideration, I was jumping up and down in delight. Because she is Shawna, she’s the perfect embodiment of Shawna.
I mean, when I created the adult Shawna character a dozen years ago [in the book Michael Tolliver Lives], I wanted to have this kick-ass, pansexual girl – not that I’m describing Ellen that way, [she’s] a kickass lesbian – with a strong political conscience.
The show is refreshingly diverse in terms of race, gender and sexuality…
Part of it is we’re addressing the different ways that queer folks get to identify now. And so, we have a non-binary actor, Garcia, bringing some of those issues into the fore and brilliantly playing someone that’s living a life like that.
What we’ve always attempted to do with Tales is to present lives both gay and straight with clarity and without preaching, without identifying villains. We educate, about the non-binary and transgender experience, without preaching or wagging the finger.
There are too many queers on the internet wagging their finger at each other, because it’s scary to wag the finger at your true enemies. And that’s not helpful. It’s kind of smug, actually, to assume the stance of righteousness, on any subject.
The new show is also very diverse in terms of age, particularly with a character like Michael Tolliver, who we see is in a relationship and still very sexual. Was that something that was important to you, particularly as the gay community can be accused of being ageist and youth-obsessed?
Um... it helps that we got such a hot guy to play Michael. And, of course, Charlie Barnett [who plays Michael’s boyfriend, Ben] is so dreamy. But beyond that, you believe that they’re in love, and that’s a tricky thing to pull off sometimes. Both those men have such big hearts, and they let us see them.
There’s a lot of intergenerational stuff going on in Tales. And when I was a young man, I had older friends, who showed me the way to being queer. I was lucky, I had some really good ones, Christopher Isherwood [the novelist] primarily. And you’d go to parties at Isherwood’s house and there’d be somebody of every age of queer around the table. It was just amazing. He knew [prolific gay writers] Forster and Somerset Maugham and even [Greta] Garbo at one point. To hear those stories told made you feel connected with the tradition.
How does it feel to have people look up to you in that same way?
Well, Isherwood taught me how to do it. How to graciously accept compliments from the young when they seem to be sincere. It’s funny, in his diaries, he says that I was a little too over-enthusiastic about him when I met him... he also wrote that I made him sound like “America’s old Mr Queer”. And that’s exactly what he was to me!
Is that how you feel now?
*laughs* Does it sound immodest to say that I do now feel that way sometimes?
What do you think Isherwood would make of the queer community in 2019, and the progress that has been made?
Well, in the first place, he used the term queer himself, when no one was doing it. He told me that I should do the same because, in his words, it embarrasses our enemies.
He’d be very happy to see how things are today, he was one of our early revolutionaries.
Since we were last on Barbary Lane, there have been some big developments within the queer community, what would you say were the biggest changes, and how are they reflected in the show?
Well, let’s see – I usually get asked historical questions, and they exhaust me.
Things have changed so dramatically over the last 40 years that it’s hard to answer that exactly. But there are things in the show about generational differences in the gay community, the ways in which our experiences differ between the young and the old, that are addressed with great effectiveness in the story.
I’m thinking particularly of that dinner party scene… that scene in the park with Michael and Ben afterwards had everybody on set just weeping.
That scene [which sees Ben calling out a group of older gay men at a dinner party for their use of a transphobic slur, leading to an argument between them] is very uncomfortable, but it’s an important moment.
I mean, that scene makes you uncomfortable because you start off thinking, ‘These are just a bunch of rich assholes’ – they’re A gays, they’re the equivalent of the A gays in a similar scene in the original Tales. But this time they have a history, that has to do with their pain and their loss, and their memory of AIDS. And they don’t feel that a younger man is entitled to be politically correct with them.
So both sides are right – they are racist, and they are transphobic, and all those other bad things. But they also suffered.
Do you feel like the younger generation within the LGBTQ+ community are invested enough in our history?
Oh no, I’m not going to be one of those old queens who are always saying, ‘You whippersnappers have Grindr now, when I was a young lad I had to walk 20 miles through the snow just to suck a cock’. I know people like that, and I don’t want to be one of them… though it is handy, Grindr.
But, anyway. I know lots of young people who are very engrossed in our history, very well-versed – and not just Bette Davis and Judy Garland. They care about where we came from, as should everyone.
There are a lot of shows right now with queer themes at their core that are enjoying a lot of success. Are you a fan of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race or Pose?
I am. Who wouldn’t be? Pose opens people’s eyes in many, many ways. And Drag Race, you can’t go to a club night without seeing an alumnus on the bill! I mean, he’s not only exposed the world to what it means to do drag, but he’s made stars.
Similarly, are there any rising stars in the community right now that have caught your attention?
Russell Tovey is a trailblazer. He’s on a series right now by Russell T Davies called Years And Years and he gets to be hot and political. Once upon a time, you didn’t get to do both.
And that’s true of [the new series of] Tales, we were allowed to show these new characters as sexual beings. I’m sure somewhere in the world, we’re going to get objection to that, since Netflix is global. But it’s a far cry from the original Tales, where the American Family Association tried to shut down PBS [the broadcaster who aired the original series], because men were kissing on it. The head of the American Family Association said we were promoting ‘annal’ sex – that’s how he pronounced it, ‘annal’ – when in fact we didn’t do that at all (although we’ve taken care of that nicely in this show, I think).
A backlash like that is obviously infuriating, but is there a part of you that actually quite enjoys it?
Oh yes! *laughs* I remember when Entertainment Tonight ran a feature talking about “the controversial show that had nudity and gay lovers and narcotics…” – that means joints – and all they did was make the ratings go up. They gave PBS the highest-rated show in years, not since Upstairs Downstairs had a drama series done that well.
So most of the objections are – well, first of all, they’re devices that those right-wing groups use to make money for themselves – but they don’t really reflect how people feel about the show itself. Tales won a Peabody Award, and was highly respected 25 years ago. And I think it holds up very nicely now.
One big change in the last decade for the community has been the rise in trans visibility. For many people reading the original Tales Of The City books, Anna Madrigal will have been their first experience or encounter with a trans character. Do you feel proud to have given people that decades before the conversations we’re currently having?
I do feel proud about that. I wanted to do a transgender character – we said transsexual back in those days – but I wanted it largely because I thought it would be a great solution to a mystery. There was such a novelty to that, that people didn’t even guess it when it was first printed in the newspaper.
What I didn’t know, at the time, was that I would be speaking to a whole community of people, for whom she was a welcome relief. Kate Bornstein [author and gender theorist] was in a documentary about me called The Untold Tales Of Armistead Maupin, and she said in that it was amazing to discover a transgender woman that wasn’t a serial killer or a clown, the usual things that they do to us. The same things that were done to gay men simultaneously.
The show opens with Anna Madrigal being interviewed about San Francisco, and how it has changed. How do you feel about that subject?
Well, there’s some clue to be found in the fact that I just moved to London. That was not a rejection of San Francisco, because I love it there and I love the life that I’ve lived there, it will always be in my heart. But it’s a little depressing to see the town taken over by billionaires. It chases out all the artists, and it doesn’t matter if these big mega corporations have “diversity days”. That just gives them the chance to put up some rainbow flags.
I mean, I don’t know maybe we’re already there, in terms of acceptance, but… it doesn’t make the town more interesting. It’s hard to eavesdrop on a conversation in a café, when they’re talking about things you don’t understand at all.
Despite the huge changes the community has gone through, it’s still a time of great fear for a lot of queer people. What would be your message, particularly to young people, who are feeling that fear right now?
Your biggest defence is to be yourself. To live openly and happily and don’t let anybody take away your life, or your freedom. I mean, that’s very hard in places where we’re still being terrorised, but... if you’re still worried about what your granny thinks, get over it.
And finally, what do you want people to get out of Tales Of The City?
I want them to feel as if they’re part of this family. And to give them the strength to keep on being themselves, and living their lives. As free spirits.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
All 10 episodes of Tales Of The City will be available to stream on Netflix from June 7.