Belfast Telegraph

So '90s: Why Derry Girls is the best nostalgia trip in town

As the sitcom wraps up for another season, Ed Power counts the ways it brought a brilliant decade back to life

Picture by Lorcan Doherty / Press Eye
Picture by Lorcan Doherty / Press Eye

And so Derry Girls hop-scotches into the sunset after a successful second season.

Once again, the biggest surprise about the Lisa McGee hit is not that a late-period Troubles comedy could be a rich source of chortles. It's that we all so very desperately miss the '90s.

That seems to be true even of people too young to have meaningfully experienced the Nineties first time around. For some reason, the decade of grunge, boybands and cynicism pouring from our pores and through the walls continues to exert a deep fascination. Why this should be so, is a matter sociologists could spend forever and a day interrogating.

What's unquestionable is that Derry Girls paints a halcyon picture of a time when the music was better, the fashion was… more interesting and selfie moments weren't a thing.

Derry Girls Christmas cupboard.
Derry Girls Christmas cupboard.

In her portrait of female friendship in the pre-social media age, McGee pleads a powerful case, moreover, that life before the internet was in many ways superior. Nobody had a mobile phone constantly distracting them and a Twitter storm was what happened when a flock of birds took fright en masse.

How far have we come in the interim? Not quite the distance we might like to think, is the implication. So what have we leant?

1 The music was just better back then

Derry Girls do some brainstorming
Derry Girls do some brainstorming

From The Cranberries' 'Dreams' to Cypress Hill's 'Insane in the Brain', at its most assured Derry Girls is a valentine to the pre-internet music era. The soundtrack brims with nostalgia - season one, for instance, treated us to 'Alright' by Supergrass, 'Unbelievable' by EMF and 'No Limit' by 2 Unlimited (which yielded surely the greatest nineties pop couplet in "I'm making techno" and "I am proud").

This was a golden age for pop, the show quietly argues - perhaps the last golden age. Rap-metal was coming over the hill and then music downloading would bring the industry to its knees. But in 1994 we'd never had it so good.

Most impressive of all is the way Derry Girls conjures the era without resorting to clichés such as grunge or early Britpop (which was just about twinkling on the horizon circa 1994). Even techno cheese-mongers D:Ream come away with their reputations burnished.

2 Kevin McAleer was a different sort of Irish comedian

What a terribly shouty lot Irish comedians are (it's telling that Tommy Tiernan tries to distance himself from his frenetic stand-up persona with his acting part in Derry Girls). A different - very Irish and very deadpan - stripe of humour was pioneered through the Eighties and Nineties by Tyrone's Kevin McAleer. He returned in Derry Girls hilariously portraying super-dreary Uncle Colm and was just as wryly underplayed as the very ancient will remember. What's he been up to all these decades? And why did it take Derry Girls to bring him back?

3 Fashion was different in the 90s

The show’s creator, Lisa McGee
The show’s creator, Lisa McGee

Scrunch-dried hair, alice bands, berry lipstick and "emo" eye-liner are among the fashion throwbacks celebrated in Derry Girls (or so the internet tells me - I honestly wouldn't know an alice band if you clobbered me unconscious with one).

4 Troubles humour was a thing

In a divided community, where leaving the house could involve having a soldier stick a gun in your face, dark humour was often the only solace. Derry Girls perfectly nails the weary cynicism that was in the air after decades of conflict. In another context, characters' caustic wit might feel contrived. But McGee accurately conveys the deadpan world view which helped people negotiate the strife and the fear that it would simply rumble on forever.

5 Boy bands weren't always wrinkly and middle-aged

In one memorable season two episode, the girls skip town and risk death-by-polar-bear in order to attend a Take That concert in Belfast. It harks back to the days when boybands consisted of young men rather than, as is the case today, middle-aged chaps keen to replenish their coffers. It's weird how Derry Girls can make you nostalgic for things you hated first time around.

6 Life before the internet was free and glorious

Gerry Quin (Tommy Tiernan), James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn) Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan)
Gerry Quin (Tommy Tiernan), James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn) Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan)

Social media bullying, Twitter-storms, WhatsApp gossip - none of it is anywhere to be seen in Derry Girls so that our heroines can get on with being young women trying to negotiate the world. Yet their lives don't feel any poorer for the absence of Instagram - a reminder that technology can complicate as often as it can simplify. Would we be miserable if our phones all vanished in the morning? For about ten minutes. Then, as Derry Girls shows, we'd just saddle up and get on with life.

7 Tommy Tiernan is so much better when he isn't shouting

We've already mentioned him, but one of the biggest revelations in Derry Girls is that Tommy Tiernan is a relatively subtle actor. Playing the put-upon father of main character Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) he delivers a master-class in mid-life moroseness. It brings us back to the Nineties when he was perceived as the future of Irish comedy - rather than his current incarnation as Ireland's shoutiest stand-up.

8 The Brits still do Irish comedy better than Ireland

Derry Girls has been compared to that Nineties Irish TV stalwart Father Ted. In tone and humour, they're decades apart.

But both have been brought to the screen by London's Hat Trick Productions. It's a slightly depressing reminder than 21 years since Father Ted went off the air, British telly is still the go-to for Irish writers with a funny story to tell. Some things, it is tragically clear, never change.

9 Scandals were better back then

Celebrities nowadays can find themselves at the centre of a firestorm because of a mildly misjudged Tweet. That's very different from the early Nineties, as we learn as the characters discuss Hugh Grant's arrest in Hollywood for solicitation. Back then, celebs really knew how to disgrace themselves.

10 The series reminds us that peace in the North shouldn't be taken for granted

As politicians in London once again regard Ireland as an annoyance rather than a legacy of imperialism, Derry Girls season two featured the IRA ceasefire and the road to the Good Friday Agreement as a storyline. Not that anyone in Ireland needs their memory jogged, but it was an important reminder that it's not long since the North was a war-zone. Derry Girls made us laugh but it also made us think - and the latter was arguably as important as the former.

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