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Tales of the City author: ‘Gay actors for gay roles’

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Media captionArmistead Maupin: “Gay actors bring something special to gay roles”

More than 20 years since Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books were first made into a series for UK TV, a new adaptation for global audiences begins this week with a 10-part Netflix revival.

In 1993, Channel 4 produced the first TV adaption of the well-loved stories (Maupin has written 10) which follow a group of San Franciscans over several months in the 1970s. The stories have interwoven plots and interrelated characters, some of whom are LGBT.

The original series caused a stir when it eventually aired in the United States on PBS later that year because of its LGBT characters, scenes showing nudity and drug taking.

PBS was flooded with calls from the public, both before and after Tales of the City was screened, with many demanding the show be cancelled. And as the argument rumbled on there was a bomb threat in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“When Tales of the City appeared in America in 1994, it was the first time Americans had seen two men kissing on broadcast television. It caused an uproar with certain right wing groups who petitioned Congress. They shut it down, essentially,” says Maupin.

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Armistead Maupin’s first Tales of City novel was published in 1978

PBS went on to screen two versions of the show, one as produced and one edited to remove scenes such as two men in bed together.

But it didn’t stop the protests from groups promoting family values who called it “gay propaganda” and “anti-family, anti-religious”. The debate also went to the Senate in some states.

The series was nonetheless a huge ratings hit for PBS, and also won a legion of fans and much critical praise. PBS was spooked though and shied away from making the sequel, leading Maupin to say PBS had “caved” in.

Netflix’s release will be the fourth TV adaptation of Maupin’s books. Each series has taken up a different stage in Maupin’s series. But this latest venture is its most diverse yet. The actors chosen to play the iconic roles were this time very important to the author, one of the leading names in queer literature.

“I just think that a gay actor can bring something special to the role from their own experience. I’ve always wanted a gay man to play Michael Tolliver, for instance, he’s sort of my alter ego,” says Maupin.

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Ellen Page (left), who is openly gay, with co-star Zosia Mamet

Michael’s character is played by Murray Bartlett. Other cast members include Laura Linney, who has played the central character of Mary Ann Singleton in all series, and Olympia Dukakis (also in the show from the start) as Anna Madrigal. Ellen Page, Paul Gross and Josiah Victoria Garcia and Zosia Mamet also feature.

There is currently a heated debate within Hollywood about whether non-LGBT actors should be playing LGBT roles, especially when there is so much queer acting talent available to represent themselves.

According to industry insiders, several of these performers will be out of work, whilst their straight and cisgendered (meaning they identify with their birth sex)colleagues go to great lengths to perform their potentially perfect queer castings.

Maupin believes that many LGBT performers will stay silent about their sexuality, hoping to not get typecast or overlooked.

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Charlie Barnett and Murray Bartlett, both actors are openly gay

“We’ve got many more ‘out’ actors now, but not enough. There’s still huge lies being told across the board, because agents demand that if they’re gay actors, there’s still an idea in Hollywood that the big stars can’t be gay.

“And we do have four or five really big stars who are gay, and they’ve gone to great lengths to cover it up, getting wives and girlfriends.

“When you see Murray Bartlett, or Ellen Page, who plays Shauna Hawkins, you can you can feel the truth of what they’re doing… In a way that you wouldn’t if a straight actor was busy trying to distance himself or herself.”

It isn’t just diverse sexualities and genders that audiences can expect on their screens – the author also pushed for racial diversity too.

“When I wrote Tales of the City, 40 years ago, I was a little white boy straight out of the South and so too many of the people were white. For several of the characters in Tales, we’ve changed their racial component, because we wanted more black people in the show.”

Younger generations of LGBT people may not be aware of Tales of the City existing prior to this Netflix series launching, but Maupin has been widely thanked by several generations of queer people for bringing their lives to the mainstream.

They thank him for making wider society aware of the community’s existence and importance when not many others would.

“This has been a long struggle. There’s still plenty of people that need to hear it, because they believe their church or their parents, or their repressive country about who they are.

“To know that I’ve told a story that has endured and people want to keep knowing about these people, that’s the best a writer can ask for.”

Tales of the City is on Netflix now.


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Justin Timberlake says sorry to Jessica Biel for ‘lapse in judgement’

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Justin Timberlake has apologised to wife Jessica Biel after he was pictured holding hands with a co-star.

“A few weeks ago I displayed a strong lapse in judgement,” he wrote in an emotional Instagram post.

“I drank way too much that night and regret my behaviour. I should have known better.”

The 38-year-old said he wanted to make it clear that “nothing happened” between him and actor Alisha Wainwright.

He was snapped hand-in-hand with Alisha in November – they were part of a group pictured drinking on a balcony in New Orleans.

The pair were in the US city filming the upcoming movie Palmer – in which they play lovers.

“I stay away from gossip as much as I can, but for my family I feel it is important to address recent rumours that are hurting the people I love,” the singer and actor wrote.

“I drank way too much that night and regret my behaviour. I should have known better. This is not the example I want to set for my son.”

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Alisha Wainwright and Justin Timberlake are co-stars in the movie Palmer

Justin Timberlake has been married to actress Jessica Biel, 37, since 2012, and they have a son Silas, four.

“I apologise to my amazing wife and family for putting them through such an embarrassing situation, and I am focused on being the best husband and father I can be,” he added.

‘Promoting the film will be awkward’

Analysis from Sarah Packer senior showbiz reporter at MailOnline

“Well, the pictures didn’t look great, did they? It’s not how you might expect to see a married man with a family behaving.

“I imagine he spoke to his people before putting out the Instagram post. Otherwise, it would have been too much of a shock for them.

“I also don’t feel it’s a move to prevent damage to his image – it feels like a sincere apology.

“You do have to credit somebody for stepping forward and saying, ‘Look, I hold my hands up, I made a mistake’. He’s just looking for forgiveness now, and if Jessica has forgiven him then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t as well.

“Going forward, it’ll be massively awkward when it comes to him and his co-star going on the promotional tour for the film. There’s likely to be nervousness between them, especially on her part.

“And because Justin Timberlake has commented on the situation it means journalists can now ask them questions they thought were off the cards before.”

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Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears split in 2002

Justin Timberlake has spent most of his life in the public eye – first appearing on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club as a child.

He later went on to join the group NSYNC – and has dated Britney Spears and Cameron Diaz.

In interviews after splitting up with Britney he revealed the song Cry Me a River was written two hours after they broke up.

The singer and actor has released five studio albums and starred in more than 20 feature films including Alpha Dogs, In Time and The Social Network.

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Matt Baker to stand down as One Show presenter

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Matt Baker has announced that he is leaving The One Show after nine years.

Baker, 41, who will step down in spring, shared the news on Wednesday’s episode of the BBC One show.

In a statement, he said the programme had been “brilliant” at showcasing the “eclectic mix of Britain”.

He said he was excited about new opportunities – “but most of all I’m looking forward to having dinner with my family and being able to put my kids to bed”.

Baker, who has presented The One Show alongside Alex Jones, will continue to present the BBC’s Countryfile and sports coverage.

He said: “I’ve loved that The One Show has been such a big part of my life for the last nine years.

“It’s been brilliant to showcase the eclectic mix of Britain, meet incredible people along the way and witness so many lives changed with the annual Rickshaw Challenge for Children In Need.

“I’d like to thank all those I’ve worked with over the years and especially you, the viewer, for showing me so much support during my time on the green sofa.”

The former Blue Peter presenter joined The One Show on a permanent basis in February 2011, months after coming second in 2010’s Strictly Come Dancing series. He replaced comedian Jason Manford.

Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said Baker’s “warmth and wit have helped to create many magical moments on the sofa”.

“He has a great connection with BBC One viewers and will continue to play an important role on the channel on Sunday nights in Countryfile and with BBC Sport on our gymnastics coverage,” she added.



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Spassky vs Fischer: How the chess battle became a theatre event

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Boris Spassky (left) and Bobby Fischer duke it out in 1972

When the American Bobby Fischer challenged the Russian Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship in 1972 the media looked on in fascination. It seemed the Cold War was being played out in Iceland on a chessboard. Now a new play reconstructs the historic match.

It was pre-internet, pre-mobile phone, pre-online comment, pre-news channels, pre-streaming. The match was happening in a place inconvenient for the world’s media. TV satellite space was at a premium: on US networks the updates were sometimes just talking to a reporter in Reykjavik on the phone.

No one had seriously considered chess as prime-time material. But then along came the unique and deeply troubled Bobby Fischer.

Fischer was born in 1943 and grew up in New York. From his early teens the game of chess obsessed him. At 14 he was the youngest ever US chess champion.

But since World War II world championships had been almost entirely dominated by the USSR. Could Fischer be the man to bring the prize back to Brooklyn?

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer is an attempt to delve into the psychologies of two remarkable men. Spassky, who’s now 82, was usually regarded as the more stable of the two. Fischer died in 2008 after years of bizarre behaviour and extreme statements – he praised the 9/11 attacks for instance.

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Robert Emms (left) who plays Fischer and Ronan Raftery as his rival Spassky

Robert Emms has made his name as an actor in TV series, including Atlantis and Chernobyl. Now he has to make sense of playing Fischer.

“Bobby is packed full of contradictions. He was Jewish but he could be anti-Semitic. He was American but he seems to have felt no real patriotism. He was undoubtedly unstable and I think you need to go back to questions of paternity and the family he grew up in. His relationship with his mother was tense.

“However all that came about, he ended up with a vulnerability which shaped him. Bobby Fischer was a brilliant but self-destructive character and – though this is mainly after the period of the play – eventually he spiralled out of control. There’s real tragedy there.

“As an actor that gives a huge amount to play with but you’re always dealing with what’s in the text: Tom Morton-Smith (the playwright) is always pointing the audience in a certain direction. Bobby probably was never happy and I’m not sure he had real friends. But he was larger than life, which is a gift to play.”

Irish actor Ronan Raftery, currently appearing in the TV mini-series The Rook, plays Spassky. “He always came over on the surface as a much calmer and more focused player. But I think we now know more about how thrown and upset he was by Fischer’s behaviour and we use that.

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Director Annabelle Comyn has the job of making a chess match exciting to theatre goers

“Boris genuinely hated the fact that this game he loved so much had somehow taken on an aspect of superpower politics. As the reigning world champion he just wanted to play the match and win.”

Emms thinks that in 1972 Fischer too was essentially apolitical. “It’s interesting that neither man felt a strong affiliation to his country – what they were passionate about was playing chess and we communicate that on stage.”

Which raises the question of how exactly do you stage chess for the theatre? Two people leaning over a small table holding their foreheads in silent contemplation doesn’t promise great drama.

Director Annabelle Comyn says when she met with Morton-Smith the question of staging the games was high on the agenda. “In the text Tom reproduces them in standard form so chess fans can digest the moves if they want to. But deliberately there was no guidance as to how and to what extent we’d represent that on stage.

“The games soon take on a meaning which goes beyond the game itself. The match is being used both by the Soviets and the Americans for certain ends. So we start with a literal meaning for the moves but then we grow into a language of paranoia and politics and the language of control. That’s a large part of what the play is about.

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Ronan Raftery rehearsing his role as Boris Spassky

“So whether it’s with music or with something more physical, we’re staging the games to dramatise what was happening underneath. They’re very choreographed pieces – you don’t need to understand every single move in detail to see what the story is.”

Comyn says the play is also character driven. “One of the fantastic scenes is when we see Bobby with his mother. That relationship was maybe controlling, volatile and insecure. We see the lack of trust that Bobby has in the world about him and I think the play helps us understand how that translated to his fear of Soviet mind games during the time in Iceland.

“Bobby’s essential mindset was that everything he’d ever achieved in life had been on his own and without assistance. He definitely felt he was fighting against the Soviets – but I think inside he was fighting against the whole world.”

As challenger, Fischer did poorly in the early stages and only later pulled ahead. His complaints against the organisers included that TV cameras were giving off noises which put him off his game (but which no one else could hear).

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Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer had an unofficial rematch in 1992

Comyn says one of the themes is how the relationship between Fischer and Spassky grew. “It would be wrong to say they became great pals. They did not. And maybe that would have been beyond Bobby in any circumstance. But they are in proximity for two months and inevitably something does develop.”

After the match Fischer all but disappeared for 20 years. In Yugoslavia in 1992 he played and won an unofficial rematch against Spassky, which had a total purse of $5m (£3.8m in current money). He lived in Hungary and finally in Iceland, where he died and is buried.

Emms thinks the prospect of taking the world title was vital to Fischer.

“It was the one thing he craved though I wonder if he ever truly believed it would bring contentment. After Reykjavik Bobby virtually gave up the game for years. You could say the whole experience helped define him but also to destroy him. He was a hugely closed personality and everything he tried to achieve was through the chess board.

“Bobby felt victory was rightly his. But would that complete him as a human being? I think probably not.”

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer is at the Hampstead Theatre in London until 18 January.


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