Special episode is full of laughs, tears and surprises as friends’ journey ends... it’s been an absolute ride, says Maureen Coleman
When Lisa McGee was 13 years old, she wrote a letter to Chelsea Clinton, extending the hand of friendship.
It was 1995 and Bill Clinton, US President at the time, was scheduled to visit Derry as part of his historic trip to Northern Ireland. McGee hoped he might bring his 15-year-old daughter along too.
In her youthful innocence, the Derry Girls creator suggested an outing to the Strand Cinema. But she never received a reply.
The incident was incorporated into the storyline of the series two finale, when the five friends wrote to Chelsea, to ask her if she’d like to sample the new wave machine at the local swimming pool. But to their disappointment, they never heard back.
Now we know why.
Whether or not the young Clinton received McGee’s original letter remains a mystery.
However, thanks to yet another spectacular cameo in Wednesday night’s bonus Derry Girls episode, we learn that the gang’s letter went astray and never made it to the White House.
Instead, in a surprise present day twist at the end of the one-hour Good Friday Agreement special, Chelsea Clinton takes personal delivery of the note at her New York apartment — some 27 years after it was written.
I mean, come on, Chelsea Clinton!
I almost fell off my seat — again — when the former President’s daughter opened the door and took the letter from the postman, before reading out the names of its writers, Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and James.
She laughs as the girls offer her James to practise her ‘moves’ on, as they imagine it must be hard for her to meet boys. The Corrs’ So Young provides the perfect background tune.
As a conclusion to the third and final series of the hit Channel 4 TV show, it’s a headline-grabbing, smart move on McGee’s part to involve a modern-day Chelsea Clinton. Somehow, her cameo makes all our favourite characters appear real. Maybe they are. I can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction in the Derry Girls universe any more.
What I do know is that this final instalment is a fabulous piece of work that had me howling with laughter one minute (Kevin McAleer as Uncle Colm is an utter comic genius. His delivery of the anecdote about Tommy Duddy and his penchant for paper-eating was sublime) and weeping the next.
McGee has made this ability to flip our emotions her calling card and she does it so well. It’s a gift.
The episode is set in 1998, coinciding with the Good Friday Agreement referendum.
In a recent interview with the Belfast Telegraph, McGee said she wanted to remind people how far Northern Ireland had come since ‘98 and how fragile and precious peace was. The instalment kicks off with the focus on Orla McCool (Louisa Harland). It’s a quirky opening to reflect her quirky character as she dances her way around the city, although we see a rare moment of defiance when she admonishes a British soldier for standing in her way.
Orla and Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) are having a joint birthday party to celebrate their 18ths. Erin laments the fact that it’s due to take place in the same week as the referendum, taking the spotlight away from the teens.
Clare (Nicola Coughlan) has moved 20 minutes up the road to Strabane and is struggling with the different language, culture and cuisine.
Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) seems distracted and on edge and James (Dylan Llewellyn) is still smitten with Erin. While the adults grapple with the wording of the Agreement and a visit from cousin Eamon (Ardal O’Hanlon), the gang are wrapped up in their party preparations. Of course, this being Derry Girls, there are a few flies in the ointment. Erin and Orla clash over themes and smug Jenny Joyce is throwing a coinciding bash herself — red carpet, swanky frocks, champagne and tiny horses.
Erin, the deep thinker of the group, has an issue with the Agreement though, namely the release of political prisoners. And here we learn that Michelle has a brother Niall who is in prison for murdering a man.
The girls clash on the contentious subject and for the first time, there is a bitter rift as Michelle insists: “These things aren’t black and white. Nothing about this place is.”
“I think the fact that you shouldn’t kill people is pretty black and white,” Erin retorts.
It’s a heart-breaking fall-out, played out to No Doubt’s Don’t Speak, but an important topic to tackle. The same conversation was had in households up and down the country at the time.
Meanwhile Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney) is having her own problems. The bishop wants the whiskey-swilling head nun gone from Our Lady Immaculate College. The news is imparted by Father Peter (Art Campion) of the lovely hair. I found it sad to see the formidable nun move around the school in silent contemplation of her future.
But no one holds back the force of nature that is Sr Michael, not even a female God. When she hears that the bishop thinks she’s losing focus, she asks the handsome priest: “And she’s worried about that herself, is she? God?”
The day of the party arrives and brings chaos and confusion, with double bookings, divided loyalties and thankfully, heartfelt reunions. Derry’s talented songbird Bronagh Gallagher also pops up as The Commitment.
There’s an earnest exchange between Erin and Granda Joe (Ian McElhinney) when she asks for his opinion on the referendum. He tells her he’s an old man and it doesn’t really matter what he thinks. “Innocent people died Granda,” says Erin. “They were someone’s mother, father, daughter, son.
“Nothing can ever make that ok and the people who took those lives are just going to walk free? What if we do it and it was all for nothing? What if we vote yes and it doesn’t even work?”
Granda Joe replies: “And what if it does? What if no one else has to die? What if all this becomes a ghost story that you’ll tell your weans one day?”
Those final scenes in the polling station, I found incredibly moving. The Cranberries’ Dreams, the news footage of Bloody Sunday and David Cameron’s ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’ apology, Erin’s words about hope, change and moving on, Liam Neeson’s RUC man gravely considering his decision and that gorgeous moment when Granda Joe and little Anna cross the metaphorical threshold into the future — they all stopped me in my tracks and made me cry. They also made me think, remember and appreciate. Job done, Lisa McGee.
In Derry Girls, McGee has created a cultural phenomenon that will go down in TV history as one of the most talked about sitcoms in recent years. But it’s so much more than that. The writer has taken a seemingly never-ending news story about a place alien to so many; a story which people beyond these shores viewed with contempt or worse still, disinterest, and made it human.
She made people sit up and pay heed.
Through her clever scripts McGee provided a history lesson of sorts, reminding audiences of the horrors we endured during the dark days of the Troubles and how peace was hard won.
Her writing was interlaced with references to bomb scares, barricades, Bloody Sunday and the Good Friday Agreement. And yet she never compromised on the comedy. No words were wasted in her writing. Her scripts were tight, punchy and packed with hilarious one-liners. And each member of the cast brought something unique and special to the table.
Confession time now. Forgive me Father Peter with the lovely hair, for I have sinned.
During the mid-90s I lived in Derry for several years, learning my craft as a young reporter. I walked the city’s walls in my double denim, danced to D:Ream and probably ate a cream horn going up Pump Street.
I never felt at home though. I was a stranger in a foreign land. After moving back to Belfast around ‘96, I only visited the city again a handful of times.
But being a Derry girl, well, it’s a state of mind, to quote Michelle.
And so, “I AM A DERRY GIRL!”
Farewell, you crazy bunch of motherf***ers.
It’s been an absolute ride.