Derry Girls could become TV hit - if viewers can understand them
The playwright behind the new Channel 4 sitcom, Lisa McGee, tells Ivan Little why she wanted to bring the humorous side of life in her native city to a UK audience
Playwright Lisa McGee laughs off any notion that the name of her new TV comedy isn't politically correct for the politically sensitive souls of her hometown. For Derry Girls is just what it says on the tin - or rather the opening Channel 4 titles - with no appendage of 'Londonderry' to complicate things.
No, Derry-Londonderry Girls was never a starter.
And, besides, Stroke City Girls or Maiden City Girls might have been even more baffling for UK audiences.
However, Lisa concedes that the patois of the new series which starts next month might be hard enough for non-Derry yins to understand.
But she hopes the characters and the craic will soon demolish any barriers of bewilderment.
And just in case of any possible linguistical misunderstandings Channel 4 have released a glossary of Derryisms to help the ears of British mainland viewers to adjust.
Lisa says she didn’t make many concessions in the way she wrote Derry Girls but she tried to use expressions and words that wouldn’t be totally beyond the comprehension of outsiders even if they hit the subtitles option on their televisions.
“I kept in things like wee ’uns. Everybody would know what wee ’uns means, even if they don’t,” says Lisa who wrote the Channel 4 series London Irish about the exploits of six exiles in the British capital several years ago.
She decided that a series set in Derry would be an ideal follow-up even if the subject matter — about a family — is very different from London Irish.
And it’s clear that even though she’s an exile herself Derry is a town Lisa still loves so well, despite the Troubles of her youth.
Yet, while the six-part series, which is based on her own story of growing up in a nationalist area on the cityside, is set against the backdrop of the Troubles, it’s not about the Troubles per se.
Lisa says: “There’ve been enough programmes and plays about the grim things that happened. I used to say that I would never write anything about the Troubles, but they’re only part of this story in Derry Girls.
“There’s plenty going on without any references to the Troubles at all.
“And I wanted to show the dark sense of humour that we have in Northern Ireland. I think we are very funny and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. And that’s not a side of us that is always seen.”
Lisa says that as she was growing up in pre-ceasefire Derry the abnormalities of life seemed normal.
Lisa, who’s 36, says: “Things mightn’t have been as bad as they’d been in my parents’ time, but we still had soldiers patrolling the streets and bombs were still exploding.
“On top of all that there was also the legacy of the really awful days like Bloody Sunday.
“All that was very painful and even though I wasn’t around then you knew so much from people talking about the violence and remembering it.
“It wasn’t until I went to London to live that I realised that our existence in Derry was unusual,” she says, adding almost contradictorily that the city was a ‘brilliant’ city to call home.
And it’s that strange dichotomy that is at the very heart of Derry Girls as ordinary teenagers live out what they see as ordinary lives in what they don’t see as particularly extraordinary times.
And young people in Lisa’s narrow world of Derry are, she says, very similar to their teenage counterparts everywhere else on the planet with the same hang-ups about life and love.
The central character in Derry Girls, which is set in the early 1990s just before the ceasefires, is a girl called Erin, and any likenesses between her and Lisa are entirely intentional.
She says: “Like me she wants to be a writer and she also has these great schemes she wants to drag her friends into.
“They’re all part of a very close friendship group that I had about that age.”
Lisa says the same tight circle of friends are still her best friends now and they’re almost like sisters. But their social life has moved on.
“Back then we used to hang around the local supermarket. That was basically it,” she says.
“Erin’s family are also quite like mine, in many ways.”
The central role of women in Derry Girls is important to Lisa, especially as in the real city females have always been seen as strong characters who had traditionally been the breadwinners working in the old shirt factories while the men looked after the children and collected the dole.
“The teenagers in Derry Girls are ambitious and they have things they want to achieve in their lives,” Lisa says.
“They want to get a good education and go on to good jobs. “
Going home to Derry for the new series was a breeze for Lisa, who has always been an avid drama enthusiast.
“I was involved in acting groups as a kid and later on I used to go to every play in the amateur drama festival,” she says. “I was always really keen on a career in the theatre.
“After school I went to Queen’s University in Belfast to study drama, but I quickly realised that I was not a very good actor so I concentrated on writing instead.”
After university Lisa and three of her graduate friends set up their own company in Belfast called Sneaky.
But Lisa became more and more involved in writing projects across the water and moved to London eight years ago
She’s married to English actor and writer Tobias Beer, who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe Theatre in London.
The couple, who have a 22-month-old son called Joseph, are jointly writing a thriller, The Deceived, with a plot that moves between Cambridge and Donegal.
But for the moment Lisa is devoting all of her energies to promoting Derry Girls.
Screenings have already been held in a number of cities, including Derry, of course.
“That’s where we wanted to go with the first showing for obvious reasons,” Lisa says.
“And I am happy to say that the response was good. It had been nervy enough waiting for the first laughs but they did come.
“My family and friends were all there and they seemed to enjoy it.”
Whether or not they recognised anything of themselves in the characters on screen is a moot point.
The series was shot in Derry, for most of the exterior scenes, and Belfast, where Lisa’s old convent school, Thornhill College, was ‘re-created’ for its starring role as the educational base for the Derry Girls.
Lisa says she was impressed with how the producers captured the authenticity of the school — and the yellow school bus.
The cast includes comic Tommy Tiernan and actress Tara Lynne O’Neill (top right) as Erin’s parents and Game of Thrones star Ian McElhinney as her grandfather. Lisa says she couldn’t have wished for a stronger cast — or for a better production team behind Derry Girls.
Hat Trick Productions have pioneered massively successful shows like Father Ted and Drop the Dead Donkey.
And Channel 4 have had a happy knack of helping them to unearth comedy gold.
Lisa is hoping the public will warm to her show and her immediate future is tied to what happens next with Derry Girls, which some critics who’ve had sneak previews have predicted could well be a cult hit.
But Lisa is taking nothing for granted. “If people watch it there could be another series. If they don’t there won’t,” she says. “If it goes again I will be busy with that. If it doesn’t I’ll have to find something else.”
London-based Lisa says she misses Derry and Northern Ireland in general.
“I miss the humour, the storytelling and the way that people talk to each other and have time for each other,” she says.
“My husband couldn’t get over how people in shops talked to me the first time he visited Derry. He assumed that all the assistants knew me because they were so friendly.
“I also loved living in Belfast during and after university and it’s an even more amazing city now, as I discovered when we worked there on Derry Girls.”
Lisa says the series made her nostalgic for her ‘uncomplicated’ youth, the days of innocence and excitement over what lay ahead in an uncertain future.
She says she’s looking forward to getting feedback from her old school friends.
But the real test will be what the general public think when Derry Girls goes out on air —and not just the Derry-Londonderry air.
Derry Girls will air on Thursday, January 4, at 10pm on Channel 4