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January 09, 1994|BART MILLS | Bart Mills is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer who contributes frequently to TV Times and Calendar

Is America ready for a six-hour miniseries depicting uncloseted gays leading ordinary and largely happy lives? Can we stand to see sexual frankness, hear four-letter-word dialogue and practically smell the marijuana being smoked on screen?

The British think we're ready at last. Seventeen years after Armistead Maupin began writing a daily fictional column in the San Francisco Chronicle called "Tales of the City," the British commercial network Channel Four came to America to dramatize it. PBS' "American Playhouse" airs "Tales" on three consecutive nights of clever talk and weird doings by unconventional characters of every sexual coloration.

Set in the gaudy days before AIDS, "Tales" interweaves the lives of the tenants of a wide-open San Francisco boardinghouse whose landlady grows more than enough marijuana for them all. There is the young woman fresh from Cleveland who finds that the dishy guy she meets at the supermarket is more interested in boys...the middle-aged executive who finds that love is stranger than he imagined ... the gynecologist who cruises at the roller rink...the model whose lesbianism isn't her darkest secret.

"Tales" was shot on location in San Francisco and in a studio in Los Angeles where the Russian Hill boardinghouse was re-created. During a break in shooting in L.A., Laura Linney, the blue-eyed blond who plays the recent arrival from the Midwest, says, "My character is the one who gets to discover everything for the audience." The mood ring Linney wears as part of her '70s costume flashes a contented shade of blue as she explains, "For her, it's like arriving in a new country. She loses her predetermined fears and judgments and learns that you grow from meeting people who aren't the same as you."

Just out of college herself, Linney remembers the '70s only dimly but revels in the chance to learn about herbal shampoo and Joe Namath. "The '70s were a big party when people tried to reap the benefits of the social revolution of the '60s. When they took drugs, it was a part of the celebration. Later, drugs became a way to hide, and that's why society's attitude has changed."

"American Playhouse" had only an advisory role in the production, executive producer Lindsay Law says. "I was asked years ago to help develop this book but I didn't. I've been out of the miniseries business for several years because of 'American Playhouse's' problems financing them. It's spectacular that Channel Four made the commitment to do it.

"It's such different and refreshing material. It's not a heavy dramatic piece--it's a lark. It tells its story honestly, though it's considerably tamer than life as it really was in San Francisco then." Asked what rating "Tales" might get if it were a film, Law speculates, "Nudity and the F-word usually get you an R. It would be right on the line between PG-13 and R."

These days Hollywood hardly ever depicts lighthearted drug use, and television doesn't at all. In mainstream films leading characters are virtually never gay. If they are, they're villains as in "JFK" or AIDS patients as in "Philadelphia." This is the major novelty in "Tales" and the reason it took so long to get on the screen.

Published in book form in 1978, it was optioned by Warner Bros. but eventually dropped. Attempts to sell the story to the networks were futile. HBO held the option for a long time but backed off in the end. After Maupin's books became bestsellers in Britain, the upscale Channel Four (which also backed "The Crying Game") picked it up and put $8 million into it.

The British producing group brashly chose to film in San Francisco and Los Angeles with a virtually all-American cast. But director Alastair Reid is British and the script adheres to British standards of literary fidelity. Maupin, who observed filming on location in San Francisco and in a studio in Los Angeles, says, "There's more freedom in Britain to film stories of modern life in an honest way.

"I was naive about Hollywood at first. I assumed that the revolution that happened in my life had also happened here. In the end, I didn't want any Hollywood money in this production because that would have meant Hollywood censorship."

Maupin, who can be glimpsed for a few seconds in "Tales" looking out a window and observing his characters, is a stocky, soft-spoken Vietnam vet from North Carolina. He came out of the closet in the early '70s in San Francisco and worked at various jobs before beginning his "Tales of the City" column in the Chronicle in 1976.

"Tales" aired to acclaim in Britain last fall, and Channel Four is preparing to film the second in Maupin's sextet of "City" tales, "More Tales of the City" (Daryl Hannah has bought the movie rights to his most recent novel, "Maybe the Moon").

Why did it take the British to get this very American material on the screen? In Britain, says co-producer Antony Root, "Television grows out of a tradition of public service, while America's comes from a tradition of selling goods.

"Britain has the capacity to fund productions for minority audience channels at the level of a majority channel. If you tried to sell a six-hour adaptation of a writer like Paul Auster in America, it couldn't be funded at the level of Judith Krantz.

"When we chose Richard Kramer, an American who had written for 'thirtysomething,' to adapt Maupin for us, he was astonished to hear us tell him that we'd lose our finance if he cut the four-letter words out or limited the gay material. American adapters are expected to change the source material. The British tradition involves keeping the tone of the original. I think he was exhilarated by our requirements for fidelity."

"Tales of the City" airs on "American Playhouse" Monday-Wednesday on KCET and KPBS at 9 p.m.

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