Lisa McGee’s new Channel 4 series explores boy trouble, family trouble and the actual Troubles
There’s nothing really that funny about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. When you think of a territorial conflict between Catholics and a Protestant majority, bombing, kneecapping, everyday threats, one side struggling to cling onto joining the Republic of Ireland, the other to remain part of the UK – none of it really sounds like a laugh.
Unlike most teen dramas, Lisa McGee’s new series Derry Girls is a comedy set in the turbulent town in the 90s. Everything down to the colour of the school bus is true to her life and she was keen to find young up and coming actors to bring her own memories to life. “Three of the five leads are from Derry. I couldn’t believe it. Obviously, you just want the best actor but I was just desperate that one of them at least would be from my hometown.” Saoirse-Monica Jackson plays Erin, the protagonist who McGee describes as “not quite cool a bit like I was”. And stand out star Michelle is portrayed by Jamie-Lee O'Donnell a loud mouth addicted to techno and the word “motherfucker”.
At the heart of it most of the girl’s life will be familiar to everyone: annoying family, emotional diary entries, unrequited love – just set against the backdrop of British military presence, aggressive Catholic nuns and a guerilla war. But it’s that unusual conflict masqued by the far mundane teen disasters that makes this really funny.
Were you ever worried it might be too hard to derive humour from such a tense and dangerous time in modern Irish history?
Not really. What I was trying to do with this show was tell another side of the story. When I was growing up I was just frustrated that that was the only representation of where I came from so I saw this as an opportunity to show how daft things were for us.
So one of the first things the lead character Erin tells the viewers is that you say Derry or Londonderry “depending on your persuasion”. What do you mean by that?
It just means you can tell what religion they are usually. A Catholic will say Derry and a Protestant will – not all but most – say Londonderry. That also lets you know if the person is nationalist or unionist. It’s very very unhelpful! One of the first questions someone always asks is where you’re from. So as soon as we answer people know the political position of your family and your religion. That's not always great. People sometimes call it “stroke city” because it is Derry, stroke, Londonderry on the news. You can avoid it like that.
Stroke city – I'll bear that in mind. How much do you explore that cultural divide?
It’s there in the fabric of what’s going on. Just like it would have been at the time. It weaves in and out of the story.
Aside from it being where you’re from. Why did you choose Derry and not Belfast as the spot to tell the story?
I suppose the main reason is that I know it inside out. It’s a very particular place there because unlike Belfast it's a border town as well. It borders with Donegal which was the Republic of Ireland. A lot of our family lived in Donegal so we had a physical border between us. Being Northern Irish growing up around a British military presence there was always a mix of two worlds.
Not to make everything about Brexit, Tories and the DUP, but recently there’s been more talk of Ireland – but only in a political sense. Do you think UK TV shows enough Irish joy?
Maybe I’m wrong but I haven’t seen anything that isn’t at least a tense drama. I think that’s a shame because comedy-wise, it’s a very rich sort of territory Northern Ireland. We’ve got a great sense of humour
“No one from any other place in the UK could have had the same experiences as us growing up but there’s a universality to being a teenager. You’re so selfish that what’s going on in your world is more important than what’s going on around you” – Lisa McGee, writer of Derry Girls
What are the biggest misconceptions about Derry or Ireland?
That everything is bleak and that we’re all miserable and having a terrible time. Actually, there are really strong communities there. Great storytellers, they love spinning a yarn.
What was it like living there in the 90s?
I suppose what I would say about it is you were sort of aware of on some level that something was going on. You knew there were horrible things happening. You knew there were dangerous areas. You knew there were areas you weren’t welcome in and all that. But when it’s all you’ve known, that becomes normal. That’s sort of what we’re showing on the show, it was just a backdrop. It was actually a wonderful place to grow up in, especially as a young woman – I went to a convent school.
Talk to me a little bit about that – you went to an all-girls convent school?
There are some negative things as you could guess, but when you’re in an all-female environment, the sports stars were female, the cleverest person, funniest person – all female. That gives you a sort of worldview that’s quite healthy I think. You were never afraid to speak up. You never felt that you’re opinion wasn't as valid as a man, because there were no men. The first time I heard the idea that women weren't funny is when I went to university. It had never ever occurred to me before that anyone could think that about me.
How much can you reveal about the series at this point?
What I will say is as it goes it focuses on their friendship and more on how important they are to each other. Everything else doesn’t matter really. Week by week, it’s a different comic adventure they kind of go on a different scheme. It’s about friendship more than anything I think. It’s such a unique situation when you look at it. Especially when I look back with a distance. No one from any other place in the UK could have had the same experiences as us growing up in the early 90s but there’s a universality to being a teenager. You’re so selfish that what’s going on in your world is more important than what’s going on in the wider world around you.
I like the way they treat Michelle’s cousin (an English boy) like shit
Yeah, and he is the only one who throughout the series who sees things for what they are because he's the outsider. He's the only one who talks sense. Usually, if they listened to him they wouldn't get themselves into half as much trouble.
What’s Derry like now? How far has it come?
It’s completely different. The troubles obviously affected people’s social lives – now there is a lot more happening. There are lovely festivals and stuff, even Halloween is massive. We have big events. But the people haven’t changed. They still hold on to that really strong sense of community. We've still got a very dark sense of humour because of what people went through. We had to get on with things. You have to be able to talk about serious matters in a humorous way sometimes.
Derry Girls starts tonight, Channel 4 at 10pm