A comedy set in Derry, Northern Ireland with the Troubles as a backdrop hardly screams “belly-busting globally successful TV show”. However, since launching in 2018, Derry Girls – which follows five teenagers and their families navigating mid-90s life in the city – has been a ratings-busting, award-winning, Simpsons-referenced bonafide hit.
Based loosely on writer/creator Lisa McGee’s experience of growing up during the final years of the Troubles, it stars Saoirse-Monica Jackson as the self-aggrandising Erin Quinn, Louisa Harland as the space cadet Orla McCool, Nicola Coughlan as the ultra-neurotic Clare Devlin, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell as rebellious Michelle Mallon and Dylan Llewellyn as the fish-out-of-water James Maguire as the central five teenagers attending a Catholic school.
On one hand it focuses on the typical teenage exploits growing up in the 90s: listening to Take That, working out dance routines, moaning at your parents, figuring out your sexuality, sneaking a drink and almost burning down a chip shop, while also capturing distinctly regional experiences such as Orange parades or Friends Across the Barricade peace initiatives.
Its fusion of acerbic wit, snappy one-liners, endearing naivety, strong authenticity and occasional dramatic potency has resulted in it becoming Channel Four’s most successful comedy since Father Ted.
The third and final season kicks off this week on April 12th. Here McGee, director, producer, commissioner, along with central and supporting cast, talk about their experiences of being on an unexpectedly life-changing comedy show that has warmed the hearts of everyone from Derry to Nashville.
How ‘Derry Girls’ started
Lisa McGee (writer/creator): I decided as a very young writer that I'd never write about the Troubles. The shows were so depressing and grey and that's not how I saw my work. The closest thing I saw to something that I felt I wanted to make was stuff like Billy Elliott or The Commitments. They were without the Troubles element but it was still working class about people who had tough shit to deal with but were also enjoying life and were hopeful. In Derry there were problems of course but there were a lot of good people, colour, and humour. It’s an incredible place.
I had a relationship with Channel 4 and they commissioned a script and it could have been anything because they liked my voice as a comedy writer. I don't think they were even aware of what it was going to be except it was about schoolgirls. Once you hand someone a script, and it's not a pitch about a comedy set during the Troubles – which doesn't scream hilarious – they can see that it's funny. A script always sells the thing better.
It was worryingly easy to go back to being 15 or 16 when writing the script. The main thing I do in terms of getting myself into the zone is listen to music. If I play an album by the Cranberries, I can still feel the pain of studying for my GCSEs. Or I'd buy perfume from the Body Shop to wear. White Musk was really popular back then – I would put that on to write. It does something to your mind. It takes you back. I didn't have to do any deep research because it was already there.
Fiona McDermott (Head of Channel 4 Comedy): Reading the script I knew it was special because the world was so complete. That just doesn't happen with every show. The authorship and intensity of Lisa's vision and the completeness of the gang was there right away.
Siobhán McSweeney (Sister Michael): You get sent lots of scripts that are meant to be comedy but they're not – they are something that can be made funny. With Derry Girls it was already fully shaped. There was nothing in it that made you think, “okay, I can fix this”.
Michael Lennox (Director): It was so refreshing to read Lisa's script. We have a long lineage of very Northern Irish Troubles films, some are really good but Lisa's lens on it was just a completely different way of seeing it in a way we’ve really not seen before. We did live through conflict and we did tell jokes, we had a dark sense of humour as a coping mechanism. My approach to taking this on wasn’t “this is sensitive or we shouldn't go here”, it was being so delighted that someone had.
Kathy Kiera Clarke (Sarah McCool): When we all finished reading the end of the first season, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. That was before it was even filmed.
Lisa McGee: Getting that gang with that chemistry was amazing. From the minute we cast them, I couldn't imagine it any other way.
Erin, Orla and Clare meet Michelle’s English cousin James for the first time in season one:
Behind the First Season of ‘Derry Girls’ and Its Unexpected Success
Fiona McDermott: When those first overnight numbers came in [3.28million], it was like: “Fucking hell! Northern Ireland really turned their telly on.”
Kathy Kiera Clarke: When the first episode went out I wasn't watching. I had gone out for dinner to try and avoid it. When I looked at my phone there were hundreds of messages.
Louisa Harland (Orla McCool): After the first episode came out and hearing the number of people who tuned in, there was a moment where I realised this is special. There were empty streets in parts of Ireland.
Lisa McGee: It really was like an overnight sensation, which apparently doesn't happen that much. There was a lot of shock and a lot of me going “well, next week nobody will watch it.”
Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin Quinn): What was really gorgeous about it was that we all went through it together on the same journey. All of our lives changed overnight – all for the exact same reason.
Fiona McDermott: The juxtaposition of the Troubles and comedy feels like that shouldn't work but also with the first series going out with Brexit as the backdrop was gold. That really did help solidify it as an important and classic show very quickly.
Kathy Kiera Clarke: When we were filming season one, Tommy Tiernan [Gerry Quinn, Erin’s dad] said “there's definitely going to be a season two” because he was just in awe of Lisa's writing. I remember saying to him, “we've got ‘Derry’ and ‘Girls’ in the title, like what's the demographic?” So the fact everyone embraced it is just wonderful.
Nicola Coughlan (Clare Devlin): It was completely life-changing. I got the job when I was 30 and didn't know if I was ever going to have a career doing this. Then the fact that people loved it was like, “whoa, okay”, because I know what it's like to do a play for ten people. The fact that it just became this hit was overwhelming.
Louisa Harland: I was working in a pub between season one and two. The show being such a huge massive success, people were expecting you to buy the rounds in, but I was serving the rounds. Channel 4 had their Christmas party in the pub that I was working in.
Nicola Coughlan: I remember going to the BAFTAS and I had no money to get a dress so I had to borrow one from my sister. I was on this big fancy red carpet and I didn't have two pounds.
Lisa McGee: It sounds really hard to believe, and I have had lots of stuff in my career where I've had lots of pushback and lots of people saying it was shite, but never with Derry Girls. Although at one point there was quite a lot of pressure that I had to represent more than I wanted to represent. I just wanted to write TV shows. It was an interesting time when we were being talked about in the House of Commons and I'm being asked to go on Question Time. It's like, “what the hell, we're a sitcom”. I'm not an expert and journalists would get my number if something happened in the news and cold call me. That still happens a lot.
Learning about the difference between Catholics and Protestants at the Friends Across the Barricade initiative:
The Politics and Power of ‘Derry Girls’ as a Comedy
Ian McElhinney (Joe McCool AKA Granda Joe): The great thing about it is that it doesn’t shy away from the Troubles, but they are never centre stage. It’s the human ability to make sure that you try to live your life and you have fun, no matter what is happening around you. Irish people are known for finding lightness even in the darkest of moments.
Lisa McGee: Good craic is so high up on everyone's agenda in Northern Ireland, it's very important. But people will start talking to you about the show and about a funny thing that happened to do with the Troubles and often they’ll get into something very dark. It has definitely opened up discussions, which is something I never expected.
Tara Lynne O'Neill (Mary Quinn AKA Ma Mary): It made me think of those days of my mum saying I had to be home by 10PM. I thought she was trying to stop me from having fun but actually she was worried for my safety. It sounds ridiculous but I hadn't really thought about that. We were so unaware of what our parents had to go through and I found that very deep coming from a comedy.
Kathy Kiera Clarke: It opens people up to talk about post societal stress disorder. Lisa does that brilliantly and it's unusually unique for a comedy to open that door, even in those brief seconds. The audience are laughing, laughing, laughing and then she just wallops them with a moment of such pathos that they don't know what has just happened.
Saoirse-Monica Jackson: Being from Derry, It's what people do. We attack it with comedy. We break bad news with a joke.
Siobhán McSweeney: Comedy reflects the human condition far better than any tragedy. People are seeing their humanity reflected back at them while they're laughing and crying.
Jamie-Lee O'Donnell (Michelle Mallon): I've always been politically minded and had this intense feeling of injustice. Coming from Derry and this background of historical oppression, it's something that you're always aware of. But there's always a silver lining of humour. It's a coping mechanism and it's a real skill and shows a real understanding of trauma. You find something within a heartbreaking situation and go “do you know what? This is actually a wee bit humorous so we can all share a laugh and share that wee connection about this very troublesome topic”.
That’s a skill and that's something that's taught, you learn that from your community or your family and friends. That's something you pass on as a communal thing. It shows a real emotional intelligence that the people from the town share.
How Derry reacted to ‘Derry Girls’
Dylan Llewellyn (James Maguire): Seeing the mural of us in Derry was just so amazing – it's such a big part of our lives now and I'm very proud of that.
Fiona McDermott: It was a brilliant idea to do the mural. It was a marketing play that transcended that. It's now an iconic part of Derry.
Tara Lynne O'Neill: It's really nice to be part of something coming from here that people can be proud of. They all feel like they own a piece of it, like it's a part of them.
Jamie-Lee O'Donnell: Obviously it's been amazing for all of us but there's just a tiny wee extra thing about actually being from Derry. It made it extra special. Coming back to the city after it came out, everyone's reaction was really overwhelming. You get a real sense of the warmth around the show. People stop you just to say the kindest things. It's made me really appreciate it. I love being from Derry even more.
Lisa McGee: It became apparent very quickly that people were responding by saying “this is something that we feel represents us”. My friends love it. They're all still in Derry and are like celebrities. Everyone will be like, “that's the one apparently Michelle's based on.”
Liz Lewin (Executive Producer): There's a sense of ownership with this show. There are lots of things being shot in Northern Ireland, Game of Thrones or Line of Duty, but they aren't saying “this is about where we come from”. There are things that are specifically located in Northern Ireland but they tend to be a bit blokey and a bit IRA-ey. With Derry Girls, there's this tremendous sense of responsibility amongst the cast and crew knowing that we are representing more than just us.
Fiona McDermott: It feels personal to people very quickly. But it is also so universal. It does that amazing thing, as all the best comedy does, and takes a very specific place with a very small group of people but the universality of the experiences of those people speaks to everybody.
The Legacy of ‘Derry Girls’
Lisa McGee: When I think about why people like it, I guess it's interesting to see teenage girls presented in a way that's just really honest. Because often they're sexy and cool, even if they're not cool. I think people responded to teenage girls being the ones in trouble, being the idiots and not being on the sidelines or the girlfriends. Being the actual people in the mess.
Siobhan McSweneey: We had an audience waiting for us. We had a demographic that had been neglected for a long time. Young women hadn't really been given their show. It just formed a perfect storm.
Saoirse-Monica Jackson: I think there's a real sentiment of hope that comes from the show. Hope for the town and a better state for everybody and that children will have a better life. Even what Lisa has done for us by putting Derry on screen and putting us in the leads is huge.
Tara Lynne O'Neill: Growing up it was very rare to hear your own accent on screen. So I think there's a huge legacy, especially for young women in Northern Ireland, of going “we can do that, it's possible”.
Michael Lennox: I spend a lot of time in Nashville and I was in an Uber recently and the driver was like, “this is my last ride and then I’m off to binge watch Derry Girls”. It really has resonated around the world. People recognise the authenticity of it and I'm so glad we've been bold and stuck to that vision.
Fiona McDermott: Shows that hit audiences in the heart like that don't come around that often. You can break down the DNA – a gang show, this many gags per page, maybe it should be regional, maybe it should be female-led – but actually trying to replicate the DNA of any show that goes big is a madness and it's pointless. Nothing will be like Derry Girls again. It's absolutely been the ride of a lifetime. I can't think of anything that has been more special or more impactful.
Jamie-Lee O'Donnell: It's been really amazing to highlight the beauty and what can come from a working class background. And how honest and from the heart the show is. That idea of understanding that even though we can come from this background and we face a lot of oppression and a lot of social issues and injustices there's still these wonderful people at the heart of it all. These people are funny, loving, supportive, really ballsy, confident, defiant and rebellious. To highlight these relationships and these people is something I'm very, very proud of. I just love that that has come to the forefront, especially for young women.
Siobhán McSweeney: The show has changed my life in so many ways. It's one of those dream jobs in that it gave me the luxury of acclaim but for stuff I really like and because the authenticity in the heart of the show is so close to my own personal politics. Sister Michael has been there for that stage of my life the whole time. It just seems really weird that she's now relegated to a few amusing memes and a couple of eye rolling GIFs. And, of course, all the stuff I stole from the set.
Louisa Harland: It's about teenage girls but we're not sexualised. There's an innocence within it, and I think that's rare. A lot of comedies I grew up watching were all very heavy on men: Father Ted, The Office, Blackadder, The Mighty Boosh. So I think the fact that this is a heavily-led female show is where I hope the legacy continues.
Nicola Coughlan: I'm completely obsessed with the women from Saturday Night Live like Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon. Those people are so formative and important and I wouldn't be where I am if I’d not had them to watch, so it would be amazing to think that there's young girls coming up that want to be funny and have Derry Girls.
Fiona McDermott: I do think it's really important to talk about Channel Four: We backed this show, it wasn’t a co-production and where we are at the moment with the privatisation conversation, we need to shout about what an important place we are and the great shows we've made. Derry Girls feels like a victory for the small broadcaster.
Lisa McGee: It's a weird thing to say but I feel like I have seven children now, even though they're adults. I feel incredibly proud and protective of them all. We've gone through this massive thing together and I don't think any of us will have an experience on a show like this one again.
The new series of Derry Girls premieres on April 12th on Channel 4.