Words: Darren Scott
This article first appeared in Attitude issue 309, June 2019
A lot of familiar characters will be returning to our screens soon for the new Tales of the City series, but there’s one thing without which the show just wouldn’t be the same: 28 Barbary Lane.
The fictional San Francisco apartment building owned by the mysterious Anna Madrigal has appeared in nine novels, a musical by Jake Shears and three previous television adaptations based on Armistead Maupin’s books.
This time around, for Netflix’s 10-part, modern-day sequel, the “wellweathered, three-storey structure” is currently housed in Studio N1 at Silvercup Studios in the New York borough The Bronx.
With the property only ever existing in the real world for short periods of time, it’s something of a dream come true to be walking towards one of the most famous buildings in queer history.
Throw in the actual Mary Ann Singleton as our tour guide, and the excitement is difficult to contain.
Laura Linney, who has played Mary Ann in all of the television versions, breaks into a huge smile as she beckons us to follow her on set.
“Welcome to Barbary Lane. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that great?”
Great is an understatement. The house and garden are a huge construction, spreading outwards and upwards across the sound stage. Something, we inform Laura, that we never thought we’d see again.
“I know,” she grins. “Me neither.”
It’s hard to emphasise just how important the original TV series was. Airing on — and produced by — Channel 4 in 1993, it was “out” programming that pre-dated Queer as Folk by six years.
Put simply, even as recently as the early 1990s, this sort of television was extremely rare. Causing a stir in America on its original transmission, PBS pulled the plug, meaning Channel 4 joined forces with Showtime – who would later make their own version of Queer as Folk – for sequels More Tales of the City (1998) and Further Tales of the City (2001).
“We knew nothing like that had been done before but we didn’t quite understand how nothing like that had ever been done before,” Laura reveals.
“Thank God I didn’t know when I was filming it. Thank God I didn’t fully understand how much those books meant to so many people.”
She guides us to the entrance, explaining that to connect to the outside world, they film the famous wooden steps on real-life Macondray Lane, in the Russian Hill neighbourhood of San Francisco.
“Then there’s this walkway, and this is the famous door that everyone first enters. Very Alice in Wonderland,” Laura, 55, adds.
Just beyond the rickety wooden door, we can see actors being given directions for a scene which involves people being held against their will on the balcony walkways.
“This is my fourth Barbary Lane,” Laura laughs. “It feels slightly different, but there’s a spirit to the building and what it represents. I always loved it because it feels like a true set, theatrical like a set from a Tennessee Williams play.
“This is the most sophisticated of all the Barbary Lanes because of all the interiors here. And as you can see it’s totally functional, we’re up and down the stairs all the time.”
She takes in the set with a look of love.
“Because this has been such a part of my life for so long, there’s something that does feel very much like coming home.”
We cross the garden — with authentic-looking fake grass — and go in the main door. Laura casually gestures around.
“So, this is Anna’s apartment…” She smiles at our obvious excitement. “She’s boisterous and big and passionate,” Laura says of returning veteran co-star Olympia Dukakis, who plays Anna.
“It’s felt good to all of us. But it’s always emotional whenever anyone comes here for the first time. And particularly those of us who have returned to it over and over again. It’s always heart-breaking when they take it down. I remember when the first one went down, I was devastated.”
The apartment is littered with reminders of decades past. “Old Anna Madrigal knick-knacks, fun things she’s picked up over time,” Laura explains as she recalls that one original prop has made its way home.
“I don’t remember which one now, but I think it was one of the ornaments on the mantlepiece.”
On the fridge in the kitchen, there are photos from the original series. “It’s always funny,” Laura says, looking at them again. “Whenever I watch the first Tales I just look like a baby Muppet.”
We venture into Anna’s bedroom, which has several chairs facing the bed, a closet bursting with clothes, lamps with lace fraying and a vase filled with rolled up joints.
“She keeps the tradition alive!” Laura chuckles. Outside the window, the director calls action.
“Now we’re trapped,” Laura gasps theatrically. “Trapped in Anna Madrigal’s apartment.”
She offers us a seat — on Anna’s couch – and suggests we take a photo. We gladly accept, sitting down beside an ashtray filled with the remnants of joints. With cut called, we venture back out into the garden, where Laura briefly introduces us to co-star Murray Bartlett, who plays the latest incarnation of Michael (Mouse) Tolliver.
We barely have time to swoon before we walk through another door and find ourselves in... a police station. Laura explains that it’s a free-standing set for a specific storyline. But it just looks so real…
“I love production design, it can really make or break a show,” Laura continues.
We venture up some creaking wooden stairs to another part of Barbary Lane, housed in Studio N2. Despite the smell of fresh wood that comes with a newly built set, Laura explains that: “They took down one set already, we’re starting to wrap things up.”
So, has she said her goodbyes?
“You do!” she says. “It’s always sad when a set is struck. That’s part of the encapsulation of filming something or doing a play. It’s created then it just goes away. Alan Poul [the producer on all the TV adaptations] was saying that he has some of the original tiles from the roof of the first Tales.”
Laura hasn’t taken a keepsake yet but admits that there will be something. We walk into another room.
“This is Michael’s apartment and Shawna’s apartment,” she gestures. “But in the 1970s, in the original series, this was Brian’s apartment, which his daughter Shawna (now played by Ellen Page), has moved into. This is her clean, efficient world.”
It’s certainly clean and definitely efficient. On the wall, the calendar tells us it’s September. A plate on the side is home to a scattering of coins. There are more staged photos on the fridge, this time of Shawna.
In the bedroom, there’s another photo of Shawna, this time with her dad, next to a copy of The Madonnas of Echo Park, Brando Skyhorse’s novel about the quest for the American Dream.
“A little artistic licence has probably been taken [with regards to how the apartments look] but primarily it feels close enough, at least to my memory,” Laura says as we poke around.
We go upstairs to Mouse’s apartment, which is “so him” Laura reckons. There’s a poster for the Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George in the living room, a San Francisco ashtray on the side, more photoshopped images on the fridge. The production assistant posed with Laura for one of the photos – Laura shows us the original version on her phone.
Taking a peek into Mouse’s bathroom, beside a half bottle of baby oil we spot a bottle of Nioxin on the shelf. Does Mouse have a problem with thinning hair?
“Not that I’m aware of but now you’ve uncovered a secret,” Laura smiles. “I don’t know how Murray [Bartlett] will feel about that.”
We won’t ask how he feels about the big tub of petroleum jelly and the broken futon in the bedroom either...
Instead, we take a moment on the balcony, looking over the garden and television magic beyond to reflect on yet another piece of TV history.
And while we’re excited to get our once-in-a-lifetime chance to walk around Barbary Lane, how does Laura feel about returning to her second home?
“The thing that stays with me a lot is that Stanley DeSantis, who played Norman Neal Williams, is no longer alive and we became very, very close during the first Tales,” she reflects.
“So, there’s a real memory of the people who are no longer alive who were with us during the first Tales that reverberates through me — particularly when I walk up the stairs of Barbary Lane, or look down from one of the balconies. Hearing the noise going up the stairs, and opening the doors, those are the tactile things that bring back memories,” she adds.
As we leave the set, we move past the main entrance once more, where scene 19, take three, is now taking place. On the wall there’s a worrying sign. It says: Notice of Demolition For Barbary Lane... say it isn’t so!
But Laura isn’t giving up any secrets – those are tales for another time…
Tales of the City arrives on Netflix on 7 June.
Read our exclusive interview with Tales of the City star Murray Bartlett in Attitude's July issue, out now.