There was a time not so long ago that marvelling at television personalities meant marvelling at the actors - behind-the-scenes was called that for a reason. But now that our interest in telly has grown, rather than replicate cinema's path of making directors famous, fans are looking instead to the people who really give TV shows their voice: the writers. The Jack Thornes, the Russell T Davieses and Stuart Carolans of the world. And the Lisa McGees.
As the creative force that gave us the comedic gift of Derry Girls, that record-breaking Channel 4 show that follows the exploits of four girls from Londonderry (and one "wee English fella") in the 1990s at the height of the Troubles, McGee has earned a special place in the public eye. You might have seen her on a red carpet, or heard her on the radio. For the Twitter-inclined, you might be one of her 68,000 followers. Even if not, her musings on the platform are reported on anyway.
"I'm glad television writers are taken seriously these days, but I still find it odd that people are interested in my opinion on things that I'm not an expert on," she says of her public profile. "I've been asked to go on the news and on political programmes and talk about things like the Good Friday Agreement, Covid, and the US election. It's nuts. But I tend to turn these things down. They should be speaking to experts, not sitcom writers.
"It is funny when I get recognised though. Except when I'm in TK Maxx in Derry trying to buy fluffy socks."
Looking fresh-faced for a Friday morning - although she later confesses she'd been up late the previous nights watching the results of said US elections - McGee speaks via Zoom from her new home in Belfast. She's already dropped her four-year-old son to school, which is a good thing as "he'd be sitting up here asking loads of questions about what we were doing," she laughs. "It's petrifying when it happens in important meetings. And you don't want to be the mum that's physically pushing them out of the room."
McGee made the move to Belfast soon after the UK's lockdown. After 12 years in London that resulted in one husband (actor/writer Tobias Beer), two children (the four-year-old, and a one-year-old) and a rake of high-profile writing jobs that allowed her career to form its own gravitational pull, she decided to leave the city.
"Coronavirus decided it for us, although we'd been thinking about it for a long time," the 39-year-old says. "I feel like London was done for me. I'd had two kids and I was doing that thing of slightly pretending you had the life you had before you had the two kids. I do think it's a young person's game, unless you're so loaded that you can have a house and a nice house in the country, too.
"We've not been able to see people here yet because of lockdown, but compared to London there's an acceptance about it here: it's s***, but you just have to keep your head down and get on with it. I think that may come from the Troubles, because nothing was as bad as that.
"But it is odd being back in Belfast. The last time I spent any length of time here was when I was at Queen's University, so I'm passing all the places where I used to hang out when I was 19. And now I'm here with my family, grown up."
But if Derry Girls' success relies on anything, it's on McGee's ability to not quite grow up, and mine teenage high drama for all it's worth through the exploits of Erin (the sanctimonious one), Clare (the highly-strung one), Michelle (the feisty one), Orla (the spaced-out one) and Dylan (the English one). It appears teenage rites of passage like sneaking out to go to a concert and micro-observations like perpetual family bickering over the chip shop order bring our own memories back into sharp focus, even if they're not necessarily from the 1990s.
It's also why the spin-off book of Erin's Diary, ostensibly the reason for our chat, fits right in to the Derry Girls world. Introduced in the first scene of the first episode, lest we forget, the physical copy is all you'd expect from our ambitious protagonist, who, as a wannabe writer, is based loosely on McGee.
Speaking to McGee, she also shares Erin's straight-talking, straight-focus traits, but certainly doesn't take herself as seriously. Dispersed between the diary entries, there are forthright letters, passive-aggressive notes from friends and family, and it's crammed with references from the show (a pic of the famous blackboard showing the differences between Catholics and Protestants, letters to Katya, a list of animals that sort of look like famous people...). I cracked it open at a random page, and it was a letter from New Ulster Poets Now that began: "Dear Miss Quinn, thank you very much for your prompt reply to the letter we sent you rejecting your poem 'Crossfire Child'...".
The book was written during lockdown while McGee was still in Balham, London, and written in a nearby church that was lying empty. "It saved my sanity, having somewhere to go that was quiet," she says. "We'd had a few offers about doing a tie-in book and a diary was the easiest way for me because I write from a character's point of view. I feel like I can tap into Erin terrifyingly easily for a woman of my age."
Aside from the book, there's another spin-off in the works that's of great interest: following the likes of The Inbetweeners and The Simpsons, it looks like that much-called-for Derry Girls film is happening, though it's very early days yet. Hat Trick Productions, the company behind the TV show, is up for it and is currently fielding interest from the wider industry. For McGee, it requires an extra bit of forethought, because what works for the small screen won't necessarily work for the silver screen.
"My ambition would be that anyone could go and see it even if they've never heard of Derry Girls before. It's quite tricky to find the right story for that," she says. "There's also practical things, like its length. A Derry Girls episode uses so much story and you need a bigger story for a movie, and then you need to sustain their energy. You know from watching the show that everything is so dramatic and builds to a ridiculous pickle. So it's about getting the structure of it. I've been thinking about that, and other things, like what would be different about the movie, and whether it would work if we took them outside of Ireland."
How does she feel about the prospect of seeing her creation in a cinema, assuming they're still around after coronavirus?
"I'm excited, although I can't concentrate on anything until series three has finished filming. It's a frustrating situation to be in."
Ah, yes. The long-awaited third series, which had just been ready to film before coronavirus halted productions across the world. Filming on many productions has resumed but with prohibitive Covid-safe regulations which, McGee says, don't quite work for Derry Girls.
"We're a period show, there are a lot of locations, a lot of extras, and there are a lot of big numbers that we just don't want to change," she says. "We'll change some things to make it easier, but if we were to shoot under the Covid restrictions, it would probably just have to happen in the Quinn's living room to work within our budget. So we're just waiting until we can do the version we want to do."
It will come as no shock to reveal McGee herself was a teenager in 1990s Derry, growing up with the backdrop of the Troubles that made the difficulty of teen life even trickier. Derry is where McGee began her writing career, penning scripts for local theatre companies before earning an attachment at the National Theatre in London in 2006. That's what prompted her move to London, and afforded her the time and space to flex her creative muscles in full. It resulted in Girls and Dolls, the theatre production that recently enjoyed a revival thanks to McGee's success.
She spearheaded her own sitcom, London Irish. Portraying the exploits of a cluster of Irish friends who'd moved to London, it captured a generation's trials and tribulations. Or a caricature of it, at least.
Derry Girls was her next project, and that's the one that struck TV gold. If it wasn't the nostalgia that drew viewers in, it was the profane humour, the outlandish characters (we have a special place in our hearts for the world's least enthusiastic nun, Sister Michael), or its lean, satisfying stories. So what began life as a niche comedy immediately became the UK's biggest sitcom - the first episode attracted 2.5 million viewers, making it Channel 4's biggest comedy launch since 2004.
"I couldn't believe it," McGee reflects now. "Every week, I thought we're going to drop like a stone, just because the figures were so high. But it didn't, and didn't, and didn't.
"Then when we went into series two, I thought it would be a disaster and everyone would leave it, but it built again. I've never really enjoyed it while it's happening, because I just keep thinking it can't be right."
As it stands, the second series drew an average of over 3 million viewers, and pushed Derry Girls to become the biggest series in Northern Ireland since modern records began in 2002.
Any resulting pressure, McGee says, is less to do with the audience figures than with representing her home county as being more than a place of bombings and civil war, the image that had stuck with many outsiders since the Troubles. That's become especially important since the show was picked up by Netflix and became a cult hit across the world - messages come from far-flung places like India and Mexico, and the show's celebrity fans include Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Liam Neeson, Liam Gallagher, Jodie Whittaker, Jodie Comer and Woody Harrelson.
As McGee explains: "The standard of the show has to be really good because it's about more than a comedy now, it's part of the culture in Northern Ireland. It's a special show now to a lot of people here, so I feel a responsibility to make them proud of it."
A true Derry girl, McGee was quick to express her sadness at the loss of John Hume (above), the SDLP politician and Nobel Peace Prize-winner who was key to the Good Friday Agreement, on Twitter. It's poignant that she dedicates Erin's Diary to him.
"I had always planned to dedicate the book to him, but then he died before it was published," she explains.
"I did wonder if it was a silly book to be dedicating to such a great man. But I asked around, because in Derry everyone knows everybody, and it was reported back to me that his family would think it was okay, so I went ahead with it.
"Everyone in Derry knew the day was going to come, but his death hit me harder than I expected. He was a real hero, and an unbelievable person. I only met him once: I was working in a polling station at an election when I was about 21 and he came in. I gave him his ballot, and he showed his ID. I was like, 'as if anyone in Ireland didn't know who he was'."
Given the current thirst for biopics (everyone from Freddie Mercury to Nikola Tesla has had the treatment recently), would she be interested in penning one on him?
"I probably would like to, yes, although not right now," she says. "I feel like the peacemakers don't get credit, they don't get the movies made about them, so I would be interested in that."
With the earlier caveat that political commentary isn't her area of expertise, discussion about Hume's pivotal role in ending the Troubles brings us on to the topic of whether they're likely to flare again if Brexit can't be delivered without a sensitive solution to border control in Northern Ireland, which Lyra McKee's tragic death has already forewarned.
"I think there's always a chance (of civil unrest) but I really hope not," she says. "So much of the Troubles starting was about civil rights, not about identity, but it became that. And the minute you start telling people they're not Irish, or there's a border, or if people feel they're being pulled away from Britain, that's going to be problematic.
"It's been 22 years since the Good Friday Agreement and we've had peace a long time now, so I'm hoping we don't revisit that, but I just don't know what Brexit will mean."
Does she feel that Covid-19 has taken the focus off Brexit?
"Well, there's this lurking dread that we know it's coming. I think people are just waiting for when things get worse," she says. "But I gave up following Brexit. It's too upsetting. I'm mad at the British Government, but it's a feeling I'm used to. We've always been an afterthought, and we've always been used as a pawn. Even the fact that they haven't read the Good Friday Agreement is shocking. I can't actually believe they're going to go through with Brexit for no reason. And that's the thing: it's all for nothing. There's no point to it. It just is the most insane thing. It's such a big deal, and the fact that the people that are dealing with it are so terrible, it's a disaster."
At least there are brighter things on the horizon for McGee, too. For starters, she's begun a writing partnership with her husband, as seen with the recent Virgin Media drama The Deceived: a tongue-in-cheek Gothic thriller about a romance between a student and her married lecturer, starring Emmett J Scanlan, Catherine Walker and Normal People heartthrob Paul Mescal.
Given McGee's major success with Derry Girls, how has it affected the dynamics between her and her husband?
She smiles like she was expecting the question. "In The Deceived, the main couple are writers, and the male character in that has a huge problem with the woman being so successful.
"Toby was like, 'everybody's going think it was me'. That idea of a woman having to appear less successful is something we are fascinated with. It was never an issue between us, but it was something we had conversations about in case we could use it in the script.
"The main thing between us is that we had to have a rule that we didn't take offence if we gave each other honest notes about the script. Because you're writing so fast towards the end that there's no time for being sensitive. Even though I said to not get offended, I could still get a wee bit offended if he doesn't like my idea, but he doesn't ever huff, which is amazing."
They're currently working on an ambitious 10-part thriller that spans countries, stories and time periods - "as I call it, it's a head melt", says McGee.
But next on the cards, it if ever comes off, is that third series of Derry Girls, which, McGee warns, may well be the last: "We haven't officially decided anything. There may be a fourth series, but there's only so many stories you can tell about a group of teenage girls."
Erin's Diary: An Official Derry Girls Book is out now in hardback, published by Trapeze Books, £16.99