Derry Girls: ‘We get free blow-dries whenever we want. It’s crackin'”
| l-r: Orla McCool (Louisa Clare Harland), Erin Quinn (Saoirse Monica Jackson), Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan), Michelle Mallon (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn) (Photo: Channel 4)
The first three minutes of the new series of Derry Girls cover, in a rapid, genius comic tornado, Terry Wogan, waterproof trousers, the Catholic-Protestant divide, Hugh Grant’s arrest with a sex worker, Gerry Adams’s sexy voice, and KD Lang’s pipes and the other varied talents of the lesbian community. It is magnificently, hysterically, funny.
“I’m not interested in being safe as a comedy writer,” says creator Lisa McGee. It’s paid off. Her sitcom about a spirited rabble of Catholic schoolgirls (and one wee English fella) growing up in 1990s Londonderry during the Troubles was first broadcast last January on Channel 4, where it had two million viewers per episode. It was renewed for a second series straight after the first episode had aired. It is the most popular television show in Northern Ireland since modern records began.
Its five stars have become “like the Beatles” in Derry – “We get free blow-dries whenever we want now, it’s crackin’” says Saoirse-Monica Jackson. She plays the writerly Erin, who leads the gang, Louisa Harland plays her loopy cousin Orla, Nicola Coughlan is the neurotic bleeding heart “wee lesbian” Clare, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell is the foul-mouthed, lusty Michelle and Dylan Llewellyn is Michelle’s bemused tagalong English cousin James.
In tonight’s fearless opener, they’re shipped off to an outdoor pursuits weekend with some Protestant boys from a neighbouring school as part of a scheme called “Friends Across the Barricades” (FAB), encouraged, by handsome priest Father Peter, to share what unites them with the Protestants. Some of the girls are hoping it will be a shag.
The cast of Derry Girls have different experiences of the denominational divide: Harland and Coughlan are from Dublin and Galway, while Jackson and O’Donnell are from Derry. Coughlan says schemes like this are “completely alien” to her. “I don’t think there was a Protestant school in Galway. We would have thought it was very exotic.”
But for O’Donnell, this kind of thing happened constantly. “It was a running joke that we had – everything you were doing you’d always have to connect with another school. They’re positive but afterwards you’d still go back to your segregated schools and your segregated housing estates.”
McGee never intended to write about the Troubles. Originally, she set Derry Girls in the modern day deliberately to avoid the subject, but was coaxed into writing about her own experiences and so the suggestion of violence and division hangs heavy in the air in the show, somehow both in stark contrast to the everyday, shallow concerns of the teenagers and shaping them entirely.
“These guys are just eejits, five disasters in the middle of it all.” It could have been risky – an episode in the first series features the Orange Order and an IRA man smuggled in the boot of a car. “There was nervousness on my part – this could go spectacularly wrong. I try not to let it affect my writing and then suddenly it’s about to come out and I think: ‘Oh dear God…’”
The Northern Irish sense of humour is “dark”. So O’Donnell never worried about how people watching at home might react to jokes about the Troubles. “Humour is a way of getting through tough times,” she says. Harland read it and knew, instantly, it would be funny in the Republic. But Coughlan, whose Clare is desperate to build bridges and at one point goes to a party wearing a Union flag T-shirt, was terrified. “You wonder, will people hate me for it? I asked the other girls: ‘Is this controversial?’ and they said: ‘Oh yeah’.”
For Jackson, “it’s woven between so much comedy and truth. Everyone ploughed on through and raised their children and went to work. This programme feels like a love letter to Derry. For me, and the people that were around at the time.”
The girls – and boy – in the cast have become close, and for the girls from the Republic, as well as those of us watching abroad, it’s been an education. Not just in history (though all are baffled how little the rest of the world knows about Ireland), but in what it means to be Irish.
“Growing up, I’d see people from Northern Ireland as Northern Irish,” Harland says. “But they are even more Irish than us, because we have nothing to prove. They’re even more patriotic because they’ve had to fight for it. That’s something that the other girls have shown me. I saw a difference in us before [Derry Girls], but now I don’t.”
Coughlan agrees. “We completely take it for granted. I didn’t realise how every day you have to establish who you are. I’d never seen a march in person until I lived there. This isn’t just something you see in Derry Girls that doesn’t happen any more. It’s a seriously intense living history.”
The most wonderful thing about Derry Girls are the girls themselves: guileless, vain, dim, sweet, bonkers, horny, hopeless. Repeated comparisons have been made to The Inbetweeners boys, and they’re natural, free and naive in a way that is so damningly unfamiliar in other portrayals of teenage girls on television.
“Why are all my female friends the funniest people that I’m around, and I’m never seeing that on TV?” McGee asks. So she wrote them – selfish and delusional and blissfully stupid. “When I watched TV growing up there was always ‘the bra episode’ where someone’s boobs weren’t big enough. There was always the episode where they were embarrassed by their period. The only talk about boobs in this show is Michelle talking about how brilliant hers are. I decided, ‘there’ll be no period jokes, we have other things to say apart from our bodies’. And I don’t want these women to be seen in relation to boys. They fancy them but it’s probably only 20 per cent of what they talk about.”
That leads to fabulously unrestrained performances and one of the unique joys of Derry Girls are their contorted cartoon faces. “There’s a policing of how women should be seen on TV,” Coughlan says. “Beautiful and poised. Here, we could pull grotesque facial expressions and not care if we had a double chin when we were talking. It’s very rare for women to have the freedom to go big. We saw people like Rik Mayall do it – big male physical performers – and we were nervous about doing it. I hope that young girls watch and feel freer in themselves, entirely free of the male gaze, and not worried about how they look.”
Derry Girls is rare, as a period series that’s set in the recent, memorable past. That makes it rich for nostalgia (we’re now in 1995, so the Spice Girls have yet to explode, but there’s “Saturday Night” by Whigfield and “Dreams” by The Cranberries) and for storytelling, too. “There’s enough modern stuff but no internet, and it’s brilliant not having mobiles. The girls can get in more pickles and there’s no way of getting out of it,” says McGee. Girls were closer in some ways then, too, Jackson says, “we were constantly in each others’ houses because you had to ring the landline if you wanted to chat.”
Everything has changed for young people now, with the pressures of social media forcing them to grow up faster. “Kids are on YouTube doing their make-up and hair. They seem like 25-year-olds when you hear them talking,” McGee says. But, says Coughlan, “teenagers nowadays don’t get enough credit for how well-informed they are. The climate change march that just happened – how incredible is that? They use social media to harness their voice and it’s really heartening.”
The cast have harnessed their own voices: several were advocates of the successful Repeal the 8th campaign which changed Ireland’s abortion laws last year. “It was an amazing feeling, going home to vote,” says Harland. “It’s a magnificent time for Irish women. I hope we can include women from Northern Ireland [where abortion remains illegal] in that soon, because we are one.”